Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Gods of Kickassistan: The God of Blackened Skies

The God of Blackened Skies

The Lord of Ash, the Vulture King, He Who Waits in the Winds, Devourer of the Creamated Dead and Keeper of Whispered Secrets.

Neutral Alignment

"Gods? Of course my people have gods, though we are wise enough not to need a god for every little thing on the face of Ore. My people, we have gods for one thing, the only thing you really need a god for: death." - Skallic shaman Hagan Marat

"Ah, yes, I suppose that our practices might have originated with the Skalls, but that's entirely immaterial. What's more important is that the rites of the Vulture King have ensured proper burials and hygienic disposal for the bodies of the dead while maintaining profitable operations since the Fall of Ur-Hadad. A faith that may have started with barbarians -- or may not have, I have yet to concede that point -- has ensured the continuation of civilized society and a higher standard of living for all of Man." - Brother Hesperod, Junior Accountant-Monk, Third Class

"I care not for such prattle. The Vulture King shall know my faith when He drinks in the ash from the burning bodies of my  foes." - barbarian warlord Karas of Skall

Among the Skalls, it is well-established that the only gods worthy of a man's veneration are the gods of death. Death is the only thing that men cannot change. The Skalls keep three main death gods; the first is the Stag-Headed God, He Who Is Devoured, a deity of bravery and self-sacrifice, keeper of the spirits of warriors who are consumed by their foes. The God Under the Mountain is the god of the buried dead, the Counter of Plunder, and is Himself buried beneath the stone and treasure that forms his cairn. The final god of this trinity, the God of Blackened Skies, is warden over the spirits of the cremated dead, as well as the Vulture King and the Prince of Ravens, a deity of both sought-after knowledge and irrevocable fate. It is His faith that has spread throughout the civilized lands of Ore.

Often depicted as a carrion bird composed of ash, the Skalls first venerated the Lord of Ash as patron of vultures, crows and other eaters of the dead. To be consumed by these birds was an honorable burial, as their bodies would bear worthy souls up to the storm clouds where He is said to dwell; the unworthy, however, would be shat back upon the earth, spending their afterlife literally as excrement. The Skallic priests would build tall funerary biers to feed the birds, but eventually the practice of cremation took over as the primary method of commending a soul to He Who Waits in the Winds when the number of bodies to be commended outstripped the birds' appetites, particularly during conquest. A number of Skallic tribes, however, never took to cremation; instead, they worked the massed bodies of the dead into vast tribute totems to be picked clean by God of Blackened Skies' favored pets. Finding a field of large towers comprised of dead bodies woven together around a wooden frame is a sure sign that you're in Skallic territory.

The Lord of Ash is also the Skallic god of storms, in particular in their most destructive forms. Thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, all these are the purview of He Who Waits in the Winds. Only snowstorms and blizzards are outside his sphere of influence among all inclement weather. Thus, it is common for Skalls to celebrate a monsoon but curse even the lightest of snows; Skallic myth reports that snow was invented as the dying curse of a god whose worshipers fell before the Skalls, a curse that shall dog the steps of tribes wherever they lead.

In Civilized Lands

In Ur-Hadad, Av Arat, Port Scourge and every other city of Man throughout the known world, the rites of the Vulture King are kept. Here, the faith has been adopted in a syncretic manner, and so the Skallic death god is worshiped alongside other gods on the Avenue of One Thousand Gods. Somewhere in the lands bordering the Skalls' typical stomping grounds, perhaps Hyperbarbaria, the rites of He Who Waits in the Winds took root and found purchase in the fertile imaginations of peoples eager to make some sense out of death and destruction, out of storm and warfare, amid the dead and burning bodies on the battlefield. By the time the Elder Races fled during the Fall of Ur-Hadad, worship of the God of Blackened Skies was widespread enough that the bodies of the dead (honored and otherwise) were set upon the roofs of the First City's buildings and palaces for whatever carrion birds would claim them. When that rite, practiced on such a wide scale, led to disease, the vulture priests introduced the Skallic practice of cremation as an alternative path to the Prince of Ravens' court.

Today, the civilized church of the God of Blackened Skies is one of the most efficient organizations in the Dominion of Man. A corps of priestly death-oracles predict the expirations of all citizens of a municipality, allowing the priesthood and families to prepare for upcoming demises. To manage these funerary expenses, an immense bureaucracy of accountant-monks has sprung up of the centuries, dedicated to careful oversight of church finances and the laity's contributions to them. In fact, there are persistent rumors of collusion between the oracle priests and the accountant-monks in order to fill the coffers of the faith much more soundly; the church takes such rumors seriously and has recently adopted the practice of appointing Auditors to investigate churches of particularly poor repute. These Auditors are the inquisitors of the Blackened Sky faith, charged with keeping the church free from corruption, and not answerable to the normal bureaucratic institutions of the church. Above all sits the echelon of the Vulture Priests, the ascetics entrusted with the holy duty of performing funerary rites. Any priest of the Blackened Sky may become a Vulture Priest (and, in fact, so can any faithful member of the laity), but the process is long and difficult, culminating in a ritual whereby the priest is offered up as a living sacrifice to the Lord of Ash; the greater the portion of his flesh devoured by carrion birds, and yet he survives, the greater the new Vulture Priest is favored by the God.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

ASSH: It's Like A Tribe Called Quest

... You have to say the whole thing.

Say it with me now: "Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea."

I love the way that rolls off the tongue. Apparently, not everyone does.

This past GaryCon, I was able to purchase one of +Jeff Talanian's last boxes that he brought with him to the con, a purchase that I'd been putting off for quite awhile. You see, $50 is not a small chunk of change, and $50 plus shipping and handling is even more. Even when North Wind put the ASSH box on sale a few months back, I did the math and realized that the discount didn't even cover the cost of shipping. "A con purchase," I told myself, "or maybe Noble Knight if they put it on sale or something." And so, when Jeff told me he only had four more boxes with him, I had to bite. I picked up the box as well as the limited edition Rats in The Walls adventure (based as it is on my favorite Lovecraft story).

There are plenty of reviews of ASSH out there, so I'm not about to go through what ASSH is and why you should care about it. It's damn awesome. That's all I have to say on the matter. So, rather than talk about the actual contents of the game (have I mentioned that I think that it's badass yet?), here's some stuff that I've noticed about the production values of the game.

  • The box was made to last. It's sturdy, thick, and will likely stand up to any punishment I can throw at it. I like that. I want a box that I can break open 20 years from now and say "Let's rock, imaginary future children!"
  • The dice included are precision Diamond Dice. Remember Diamond Dice? I barely remember them, and then it's from ads in Dragon Magazine. I don't think I ever saw them in person and for that, my dice ownership has forever suffered. These are nice dice! Sure, they need to be inked, but isn't that why Sharpie makes those cool paint markers? (That and to get +Doug Kovacs to draw cool shit in your DCC books.) Since buying this box, I've gone and tracked down all the Diamond Dice I can, within reason. 
  • I get why Jeff opted for the spiral-bound books. Primarily, that they'll open flat on your table. Sure, they're probably cheaper, but I'll bet it was the "flat-open" thing that made it a thing. The only problem I've had is that, sometimes, the small amount of paper on the spine side of the spiral holes can fold under, and I get worried that if I didn't notice it, I might rip the page right there, since the spiral holes make the page more or less perforated. 
  • I really need a second Players' Manual. Yeah, just another one. I want to play this game a LOT, and a second book would be badass at the gaming table. 
  • I thought that the map would be bigger. I'm not sure why I thought this, but I did. It's a great map, though. I wasn't disappointed or anything, I just for some reason thought it would be bigger than it is. The map is 24-mile hexes, which is cool for me because it lends itself to the 6-mile hex on a smaller scale, which is my preferred size. (I use 24-mile, 6-mile and 1-mile hexes.)
  • I like the odd sizes of the manuals and modules. This isn't a big thing, but it's neat. The old fashioned letter-sized manuals and modules and stuff are okay, but these really feel unique. You're not about to lose them among your other stuff.
  • The module maps could be a bit larger for my tastes. Maybe I'm just used to DCC's maps, but I like my maps big and chunky with lots of detail. The maps in the Rats In The Walls really need to be a touch larger for me to enjoy them. 
So, this past Wednesday, I ran Rats in the Walls for ASSH. We made characters in-session, which didn't go as quickly as I had assumed it would, but you can always count on +PJ Muszkiewicz & +Ray Case to drag their heels making characters, so I shouldn't have been surprised. +Jason Hobbs was the first person to flesh out a character, and he ended up with an Atlantean Warlock (of the necromantic variety), so a sort of "undersea Elric." Phil rolled an Esquimaux (which is pronounce "ES-kim-oh," not "es-ki-MAWKS" the way Hobbs tried to) Shaman who venerates Kthulhu. Ray ended up with a (male) Amazonian Pyromancer. The team had an impressive array of arcane magic at its disposal, but largely failed to use it to their best advantage and instead took hit after hit, ultimately having to retreat from the Rats. You know, the ones in the Walls. All in all, it was a great session, though, and the guys decided that we needed to play again. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Inevitable Post GaryCon Post

Man, this has been an eventful year for my lovely wife and I. It seems like all the crap we went through at the beginning of the year (cat dying, van's engine catching on fire, vacations getting ruined, etc.) built us up an awful lot of credit in the Karma department. Apparently, when invested properly, that stuff cashes out nicely. Let's look at the stuff that's been going right so far this year: (a) the Metal Gods zine is doing very well in sales and getting very positive reviews, (b) I started a new job yesterday that's pretty exciting and (c) we had a blast at GaryCon this past week. You knew that one was coming because you can read. Not really any surprises there.


We decided to go to GaryCon well after the Geneva Ridge Resort (that's the name that's listed on GaryCon's website, but it's really something something Lodge) had been completely booked up, meaning that +Kathryn Muszkiewicz+Jason Hobbs & I all had to find accommodation elsewhere. We picked a small hotel a few miles away in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, which was really just a short jaunt from the con site. Katie & I checked in around 5p (I think; I can't remember what time zone the 5p was in, mine or Wisconsin's), shortly after realizing that we liked Wisconsin due to how much it looked like home (Michigan for the uninitiated) since it actually had topography, unlike the other two states we'd just passed through (Indiana and Illinois). It just needs more trees.

Anyway, back to con stuff. Once Hobbs showed up, we made a bee line for the convention. When we got there, folks were already breaking out games. The second we walked through the door, +Rick Hull invited us to play DUNGEON! (an offer which I seriously wish we'd taken him up on, what with Katie & I being recent converts to the awesome that is DUNGEON!), but we went into the bar instead, where we met up with +Jen Brinkman & +Bob Brinkman and played some Cthulhu Flux. Note to self: always remember to ask for the bar's specials or you might miss the fact that the good local brew is free! Yes, the Glaurus Spotted Cow was free and it took me getting through a 25oz of something else to discover that fact. Damnit.


We didn't have any events planned for Thursday, which was a good thing because Katie & I felt like absolute shit. Katie might have been slightly hung over, but for me the problem, I believe, were the crappy hotel waffles. I'm of two minds about this: (a) breakfast was free, so there's little point in complaining too much and (b) the damn waffles made me sick! So, we putzed around all morning finding drug stores, places to eat and such before getting to the con and actually registering (we had not preregistered due to my personal incompetence in that field). Once we were good to go, we hit the exhibitor's hall, checked in with John Hershberger who always dutifully mans the BlackBlade/Goodman Games booth, and started scouring the place for deals. Here's the thing to remember: when you find that that thing you've been looking for is right there and a good deal, do not hesitate or say to yourself that you have to think about it! By the time that you come back to get it, that great price on the rare B-series module that you need to complete your collection will have already sold it out from underneath you!

Shortly after the exhibit hall, we made it to +Frank Mentzer's seminar on his history with TSR. It was really cool to hear his story and to get the history of TSR from his point of view. I've met Frank before (at GenCon of this past year), and this was still cool for me. However humble he may be about his role in its creation, Frank still wrote the version of D&D that got me into it, so he'll always have a place close to my heart. Rock on, Frank!

In the late afternoon, we played some Savage Worlds with ... some guys Hobbs knows. I know one guy's name is Brian. I'm pretty sure there was also a Pete and a Paul because we spent some time with those guys the next day. SW was fun. Brian put together a neat scenario that made it easy to create a character and start playing right away. Katie had never played SW before, but picked up the system right away and had a blast with it, despite how hard PCs are to kill. We had to excuse ourselves from the game, though, because +Doug Kovacs needed to chat with me about that night's DCC-related madness and what it would entail.

We ended up playing in the Kovacs/+Wayne Snyder brainchild that is STOUTFELLAS. For those not in the know, the idea is that you're playing dwarven mobsters on a mission from Da Boss, often with ridiculous results. Players included me, Katie, Hobbs, +Rick Hull+Jen Brinkman+Jeffrey Tadlock, and, I believe, Eric & daughter. I got to do an accent all night since my dwarf, Yuri the Smirk, came from the other side of the mountain (and someone had mentioned something about Russian mobsters). I rolled a "poodle" as my special gear on Doug's d200 table of weird and usually pointless gear, so I ran with it and made it a thing. Soon enough, I was having to roll "poodle checks," a game artifact that stayed with us well into the next day.


Friday started off much better than Thursday did. Despite the madness that was STOUTFELLAS, we had energy, we were feeling great and we were rarin' to go. Which made the "What's New With Goodman Games?" seminar fun. Let me say that I'm really impressed with +Doug Kovacs's ability to keep a secret. Never once did he let slip to the other Metal Gods players that Goodman is doing a reissue of the 1976 first edition of Metamorphosis Alpha and supporting it with a line of modules. Never once! One might have been able to guess it due to the number of MA events the Goodman crew were running, but hindsight and all that. I was actually pretty damn excited by this, despite the fact that up until that seminar, I'd never played MA. Read it a bunch of times, but never played it.

We had some morning strangeness with having to run back to our hotel room, but while we were out, we decided to stop and pick up some beer, especially in light of our bar tab from the previous day (kind of totally out of control), before we came back to play in +Jobe Bittman's 998th Conclave session. I'm really looking forward to the module this session was a playtest for; basic premise: one of the party's wizards has been invited to join the ranks of the universe's most esteemed mages and the party gets an all-expense-paid trip into space for the festivities. Jobe, if you're reading, I love what you're doing with this adventure, but I have some advice: in a con setting, you probably want to move things along in the beginning of the adventure so that the players get enough time playing with all the cool parts that you've put into play at the actual Conclave.

After the session, we hung around a small lobby-like area off the main downstairs space where a lot of folks were drinking the free beer (but we'd brought our own) and, I'll readily admit, we got a little toasty. Jobe, Hobbs and the guys from Thursday's Savage Worlds guys hung out. When Hobbs was explaining our STOUTFELLAS game to them, one of the guys said the dumbest thing I've ever heard come out of a gamer's mouth: "So, what? Do you play these games just for fun or something?" After that we played some games with Joe Goodman before Doug demanded that Jobe & I conspire with him on something mad.

The Friday night DCC session was huge. We had 17 players and 3 Judges. Doug had been teasing the attendees with the knowledge that he had drawn this killer map for a DCC PvP arena showdown. We added to that the copies of Palladium's old Mechanoids RPG that Doug found somewhere and we had a premise: in an impossible future, the Mechanoids had enslaved mankind and were forcing them to exterminate each other in arena combat pitting men against women in single-sex teams. Each team had its own Judge (I had the men, Jobe had the ladies) and Doug jumped in where he could by offering the players things that he had sketched and named, but the way it worked was up to the Judge. This is how +Jeffrey Tadlock ended up with both a "fish gun" and "rocket jock strap." The men's team included: +Dieter Zimmerman+Chris Hooker, Marv (Finarvyn), +Cory Gahsman, +Jeffrey Tadlock, Katie & Hobbs (and one other person, but I can't remember who it was.) The ladies' team was: +Rick Hull+Jen Brinkman+David Baity+Michael Bolam, some guy who'd never played DCC before (and, as the joke goes, still hasn't), +Todd Bunn & +Bob Brinkman. Apparently, the ladies' team had an easier time than the men and apparently I'm a tough Judge, particularly since I'd killed off half the party before we even got to the arena portion of the game. But hey, this is DCC, right? You show up expecting to earn your personal Valhalla, right? What entertained me the most is that my reputation really wasn't earned; most of the PC deaths on my side happened as the result of players' actions. I'm looking at you, +Cory Gahsman. And you +Dieter Zimmerman.


By Saturday, we were exhausted. Mentally, physically, just completely worn out. We did, however, manage to play in +Jobe Bittman's upcoming Metamorphosis Alpha adventure, Death Ziggurat in Zero Gravity (or something along those lines). This was a blast. The session started with character creation (fun stuff there, btw, rolling up mutations) and progressed nicely into a little sandbox where we (a group of mutants with 2 true humans) killed some things to provide meat for our tribe and managed to locate something else beneath the sands of the desert biome we were living in. I won't go into detail, but the whole set up was solid and moved nicely into a traditional site-based adventure relatively seamlessly. It felt obvious to me that parts of the module were inspired by the weather of the last few months (please don't make me think about them anymore though, we only just thawed out), which was kind of neat getting to see where Jobe drew his inspiration.

Eventually, we loaded up some cars and took a bunch of folks off in search of pizza at Hobbs's request. Jobe, Doug and +Jeffrey Tadlock accompanied us, and it was nice to go "off the reservation" for a little bit. We made it back in a reasonable amount of time and started marshalling our forces for the night's DCC action. I can't remember what the full title of it was (Doug had this long title for the session that included at least one "fuck" if not two), but the original concept was to be a mish-mash of all the other crap we'd played over the past few days. Mechanoids, Metamorphosis Alpha, STOUTFELLAS, whatever. In the end, it was a mess, but a fun mess. Jobe and Jeff played conjoined twins, Katie was an "action fortuneteller" who could turn into a cat, Jen was a creepy little girl who could turn into a zombie three times a day or something, Rick and David had psychic powers and I played a clone of my poodle from Thursday night, all exploring the starship Warden to keep the computer from killing them.

The session had the most ridiculous non-sequitur ending that I still get a good laugh out of: a robed frogoid wizard-lookin' dude flew down on some kind of hover disk and yelled "Ha! It was all a joke! <extended pause> Joke contest!" You could tell that pause was Doug trying to figure out what came next. It was great. And so, we each launched into our own terrible jokes in hopes of beating Doug's really shitty joke. In the end, +Dieter Zimmerman clinched it for us with the following:

  • Q: What do you call an alligator in a vest?
  • A: An in-vest-igator.
By the time Dieter got around to telling us that one, we were all too stupid to not find that hilarious. 


We thought we wouldn't be hitting up the con on Sunday, but +James DeYonke had asked us to pick him up the new Goodman joints, so we went back and did that for him. Got to see the Brinkmans one last time, as well as Doug. The drive home was nice and largely uneventful (I've got it in for you, giant pothole near Paw Paw & Lawton, MI), and took right around 6 hours of leisurely driving. Oh, and I made the thing in the picture with the waffle iron at our hotel. Four crappy sausage patties in a this-time-not-poisonous waffle. Surprisingly good.

Final Word

GaryCon is a really neat con. A bit short of space, so things can feel a little cramped, but thankfully it was March so the typical geek bathing habits didn't stank up the joint. The word I kept using for the thing was "intimate," and it was. It was really cool to see Frank and Ernie and Luke and Jim Ward just mingled in with everybody else. No other con I've ever been to is more down to earth than GaryCon and at the same time had as much clout in one place.

I would gladly do GaryCon again and I'm already starting to think about planning for next year. I'd really like to get a room in the Lodge if we do go, which means I'll have to sort all that out before too long. (Remember that I'm the guy who booked his GenCon room reservation for 2014 the day he was leaving GenCon 2013.) If I do GaryCon again, I'll definitely run something there, as well; I feel like the crowd would be pretty receptive to my own personal brand of strange. And so, it's just a matter of me seeing whether the wife feels like GaryCon planning around the time we get done with GenCon.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hyperbarbaria: Rangers of the Skallic Lodge

Yesterday, I finished off banging out the print run of Metal Gods #1 for GaryCon as well as a super-secret surprise from Mr. +Wayne Snyder that I'm printing for the event (and maybe more stuff, later), which means that today, I'm left with just the few around-the-house chores I have to get done before the lovely wife and I head off to Lake Geneva, which means that I'll gladly procrastinate to bring you some new craziness from my brain. Today, I finally get around to presenting the version of the ranger that +Shane Jones plays in my Delving Deeper game, Hyperbarbaria. In short, the Rangers of the Skallic Lodge are an ancient fraternity that haunts the fringes of Hyperbarbaria to hunt not men or orcs (hard to hunt orcs when there aren't any in settings I run), but to exterminate Things That Should Not Be. 

In the old days, when Ur-Hadad was firmly in the grasp of the Elder Races and Man little better than a favored pet, the touch of the Elder Races was largely unknown in the reaches of Hyperbarbaria. Raiding parties of elves or serpent men would occasionally hunt for slaves here, and gave the human tribes of the region good reason to band together. Just as the first fiefdoms and nations began to coalesce in the wild steppe, the Skalls struck.

The tall, raven-haired, muscular Skallic people descended upon Hyperbarbaria from the east, scaling the faces of the mountains there and catching the nascent Hyperbarbarians off guard. The leaders of the Skalls had promised their warriors and raiders new lands to plunder and blood to spill and so the Skalls had gladly come to this unknown land. The feast for their blades and appetites intoxicated a people bent on destruction, and soon little was left of the peoples who had been there before the Skalls.

Never before had the Skalls found so much to slaughter and so much to take as they had in Hyperbarbaria, and, as such, the land began to enter their religious consciousness as a sort of holy promised land, shown them by their grim mountain gods that they may take from it as they saw fit. Though the Skalls moved on from this holy land in search of new places to raid, Hyperbarbaria would remain entrenched in the people's psyche as a paradise on Ore, an earthly reward for following the gods' edicts where one might slaughter and raid with impunity.

Ages past, and Man came back to Hyperbarbaria, often to escape the Elder Races, often to escape the Skalls, but most often because so few competitors existed in the now-bleak landscape left in the Skalls' wake. Again, tribes burgeoned, grew into fiefdoms and those fiefdoms became small nations. Though the high plains' resources were much diminished, the peoples of Hyperbarbaria built anew and managed to thrive. The lessons of Skall had been learned and learned well. When the Elder Races came to raid for slaves, they found rough going here, and thus Hyperbarbaric slaves became highly prized as warriors or household guards, leading to a new series of wars against Elder Race slavers.

It was then that The Mountain came. Thrust up from the bowels of Ore, The Mountain jutted out of the earth like a broken bone through skin. Announced by weeks worth of earthquakes, The Mountain's coming on the northern border of the territory was little surprise but no small mystery. The men who approached her returned with villainous, sorcerous powers and so each chieftan and noble sent men from his court to bring such power back, the better to fight the Elder Races with. A black cancer ate at the souls of these men, filling them with power, yes, but at the price of corrupting them entirely. When the Elder Races took up raiding the Hyperbarbarians again, it was against a people fractured by warring sorcerer-kings who had usurped their previous rulers and claimed dominion; the Elders' Mountain had done its job.

When word reached the Skalls that their holy land had been corrupted by sorcery and overrun by Elder slavers, the shamans of the Stag-Headed God, the priests of the God of Black Skies and dirge-singers of the God Under the Mountain all called for righteous holy war. This, they claimed, was the task that the gods had set before them: that they should earn their right to their paradise by cleansing it of the foulness that tainted it. Clan after clan of Skalls joined the crusade and soon the steppe was awash in blood. As the crusade wore on, both sides committed atrocities: the Skalls of violence and holocaust, The Mountain's sorcerers of the spirit and soul.

In the end, The Mountain's sorcerers were slain to a man, but so too were the Skalls decimated. Too few Skalls remained to enforce their claim to the holy land, and so they were driven off, but before the Skalls departed, they left behind a small host. The shamans of the Stag-Headed God charged the host to hunt down The Mountain's corruption, should it rise again, and sacrifice their own lives to protect the world from it, should such be needed. The God Under the Mountain's dirge-singers taught them the songs of stoicism and epics of endurance. The priests of the God of Black Skies entrusted them with the task of immolating any corruption, that it might cauterize the wound wrought upon the world. Thus was the Skallic Lodge built, a fraternity of men and women devoted to keeping Hyperbarbaria free from the bleak influences of The Mountain.

The Rangers of the Skallic Lodge

Rangers of the Skallic Lodge are trackers, wardens of the wild places of Hyperbarbaria and remorseless hunters of the vile abominations of The Mountain. These rangers spend the vast bulk of their time in the wilderness, scouting for signs of corruption before they may take root in more civilized lands; thus, they are trained in a wide array of survival techniques, fighting styles and wilderness skills that would support prolonged activity outside of Man's normal dominion. Though they may use any weapon, these rangers are limited to leather or chain mail armor to preserve mobility and stealth. In order to become a ranger, a character must be Lawful in alignment and posses a minimum of 10 Strength, 10 Intelligence, 10 Dexterity, 10 Wisdom and 13 Constitution. Rangers may use any fighting style and save as a fighter of the same level. At higher levels, rangers gain the ability to cast a limited number of spells (see below).

Rangers gain more experience for defeating creatures than normal; increase such awards by 25%. By the same token, rangers gain less experience for accumulating treasure; reduce such awards by 25%. Further, rangers may not gain additional experience from a high prime requisite and carousing yields 50% the normal experience gain. A ranger may not own any treasure that he cannot carry with him until he is of 9th level (name level) and establishes his own Lodge.

Each ranger of the Skallic Lodge learns the Skallic tongue in addition to any other language he or she may know. The brothers and sisters of the Lodge use this tongue as a secret form of communication due to its current rarity in Hyperbarbaria.

In the wilderness, rangers are very difficult to surprise and are thus only surprised on a roll of "1." Similarly, they are quite stealthy and may ambush foes in a natural setting, improving the chance to surprise them by 1 (to 3-in-6). A ranger may move silently and hide in natural settings like a thief. The ranger cannot use any of these abilities in settlements or dungeon settings. Rangers always have the ability to follow tracks and does so on a roll of 3 or better on a d6.

Rangers of the Skallic Lodge are skilled in fighting the horrors wrought by The Mountain and, as such, gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage against beastmen and all monsters whose origin can be traced to The Mountain. These rangers may also unerringly identify all breeds of beast men and most horrors.

Casting their nets as wide as possible, so as not to miss any signs of The Mountain's corruption, a ranger of the Skallic Lodge may not work with more than one of his brothers or sisters. Nor may rangers hire any henchmen or mercenaries, lest they impede his sacred duty to the holy land of Hyperbarbaria. At 8th level, these restrictions are lifted and the ranger begins to attract followers for his own Lodge.

Also at 8th level, the ranger gains the ability to cast a small number of spells. The ranger will gain druidic (or clerical if your game does not have druids) and magic-user spells according to the chart below.

At 9th level, the ranger may found his own Lodge (really a branch of the existing Skallic Lodge), protecting a wilderness area as its warden.

                                                                                         Druid       Magic-User                                  
Level                 Experience                     HD               1st 2nd 3rd  | 1st 2nd 3rd
1                                0                             2
2                             2500                          3
3                             5000                          4
4                           12,000                         5
5                           25,000                         6
6                           50,000                         7
7                          100,000                        8
8                          175,000                        9                  1
9                          275,000                       10                 1                   1
10                        550,000                       10+2             2     1            1
11                        825,000                       10+4             2     1            2     1
12                      1,100,000                      10+6             3     2    1      2     1
13                      1,375,000                      10+8             3     2    1      3     2    1

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Different Kind of 1e

Howdy folks. Despite my self-imposed half-exile from the blogosphere for a few weeks while I sort out the next issue of Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, I thought I'd drop in to give you a bit of a progress update. Things are coming along nicely and if I didn't know better, I'd say I was nearly ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, I know better, so I'm not about to make pronouncements that my ass can't cash. Now there's a finely-blended metaphor for you.

However, I can't let well enough alone, so here's an idea that I've been thinking about since I heard it. I'm pretty sure it was +Jerry Durante who first suggested this, but here's a thought that makes an awful lot of sense to me:

Any adventurer should be able to do anything that a Boy Scout can.

That makes sense. All adventurers are expected to tromp across various wildernesses and spend ridiculous amounts of time with limited supplies in cramped and dangerous underground crazy places. One might begin to expect a certain degree of competence at general sorts of useful things just to survive such experiences. You just might. I know I do.

So, I started to think about exactly what it is that Boy Scouts get trained to do. I myself never got past Webelos (which is kind of a shame; I dig all the stuff the Boy Scouts do, just not some of the core tenets or failures in leadership that the organization has experienced), and it's on its way to three decades since those days for me, so it's time to hit the books for some research.

And for our research, I decided that it's best to go for the original. Yes, just as we old-schoolers love to consult 1e or OD&D (or some iteration of Basic) as the ursprung of all knowledge, I've decided that it's best to head back to 1911 for the Boy Scout Handbook's own 1e. Really, the reason I went back this far is I wasn't really sure where I should stop. Is there a definitive edition? Is there a preferred one? Rather than start a completely different set of edition wars, I figure it's safe to just crack the pages of the first edition.

According to the 1e Handbook, there are three ranks of Boy Scout: Life Scout, Star Scout and Eagle Scout. Attaining a new rank is a function of earning enough qualifying Merit Badges, which are a sort of certification (expressed in the form of a patch given to the person who earns it that is worn on his uniform) expressing a degree of competence or proficiency in a particular field. I'm not sure if this overall Life/Star/Eagle Scout structure is still in effect (I presume there are still Eagle Scouts, what with that idea still being firmly within the public consciousness).

To attain the rank of Life Scout, a scout is expected to earn the following five Merit Badges: first aid, athletics, life-saving, personal health and public health. The Star Scout  rank is gained by accomplishing an additional five Merit Badges, and the reason that we as lay people recognize the Eagle Scout as a thing is that the Eagle Scout earns at least 21 Merit Badges in order to be called that. Some of the skills that you can earn Merit Badges for -- even in 1911 -- aren't exactly applicable to your typical D&D setting, but let's take a look at the rest of the badges and what sort of proficiency they imply. (I'll list all the badges, but put the ones that I don't think would apply in most settings in [brackets].)
  1. Agriculture - You know how to plant and cultivate crops and have done so.
  2. Angling - You have caught at least ten different species of fish and can make your own tackle if needed.
  3. Archery - You know how to make your own bow & arrows, meet certain accuracy benchmarks and can "shoot so far and fast as to have six arrows in the air at once." 
  4. Architecture - You can design unique plans for a building, have done so, and understand the history of architecture.
  5. Art - You have demonstrated your ability to create original artistic works and re-create classic ones
  6. Astronomy - You have demonstrable knowledge of the heavenly bodies and their movements
  7. Athletics - Not merely physical competence, but also the ability to enact and articulate methods of training for such
  8. [Automobiling - I love that this is called "automobiling."]
  9. [Aviation]
  10. Bee Farming - You have practical knowledge of apiculture and probably know more than I thought there was to know about honey
  11. Blacksmithing - You know how to use a forge, shoe a horse with shoes you made and can temper iron & steel.
  12. Bugling - Yup. You can bugle the generally accepted traditional bugle calls. 
  13. Business - You know the principles of buying and selling, can do bookkeeping and even understand a thing or two about finance.
  14. Camping - You've spent at least 50 nights outdoors, can set up a campsite with adequate latrines and even build your own raft.
  15. Carpentry - You know how to use a variety of wood working tools correctly and have made your own furniture.
  16. [Chemistry - You might able to shift this one to alchemy in some regards.]
  17. Civics - You know how your government works, which is a bigger deal than it sounds. Interestingly enough, the original version of the badge prominently features a fasces, which, about twenty years later, would become infamous due to its association with Moussolini's Fascist party. The more you know, am I right?
  18. Conservation - This badge represents knowledge of the natural resources in your environment and best practices to ensure their long-term sustainability.
  19. Cooking - You have proven your ability to build a fire and fireplace (!) and to cook beyond basic proficiency in the open.
  20. Craftsmanship - You have planned and built an article of furniture
  21. [Cycling]
  22. Dairying - You can manage cattle, milk them and have managed at least five cows for ten days each.
  23. [Electricity]
  24. Firemanship - All that cool stuff that firemen get to do.
  25. First Aid - How to treat basic injuries and illnesses, and even some basic poison identification and rudimentary resuscitation techniques.
  26. First Aid To Animals: You can identify and treat common illnesses and injuries to animals.
  27. Forestry - You can identify different trees and shrubs and know what they can be used for.
  28. Gardening - You can identify, care for and have practical experience with growing vegetables and flowers.
  29. Handicraft - You can repair and make various household features and items. 
  30. Horsemanship - More than just riding a horse, you can also care for them and determine health and value.
  31. Interpreting - You can conversationally read and write another language and have done some translation work.
  32. [Invention - You might be able to make this one make sense, but it's not very likely.]
  33. Leatherworking - You can tan & cure leather as well as repair and make basic leather goods.
  34. Life Saving - You can swim and have basic knowledge on how to save drowning people.
  35. [Machinery] 
  36. [Marksmanship - Applies to rifles.]
  37. Masonry - You know how to use stoneworking tools and have done so to make a stone oven and at least one wall. 
  38. Mining - You have an understanding of geology and methods used in mining.
  39. Music - You can read and play music on at least on instrument.
  40. Ornithology - You can identify birds and their nesting and other behaviors.
  41. Painting - You can make your own paints and use them as well as other basic finishing skills.
  42. Pathfinding - You know your surroundings and can map them.
  43. Personal Health - Yep. You know how to eat healthily and take care of yourself. 
  44. [Photography]
  45. Pioneering - You can tie knots, fell trees and build basic structures. 
  46. [Plumbing]
  47. Poultry Farming - Chickens! You have raised, cared for killed and dressed them.
  48. [Printing]
  49. Public Health - You understand how diseases are spread and effective methods for containing them and promoting the public health. 
  50. Sculpture - You have demonstrated your ability to create models from nature and re-create other designs.
  51. Seamanship - You can work rope, navigate and work a boat. 
  52. Signalling - Semaphore, Morse code and other methods of transferring information. Smoke signals? That'd be cool.
  53. Stalking - Not as creepy as it sounds, more like basic hunting but without actually killing anything. Think Marty Stouffer. 
  54. Surveying - You can measure topography and geographical features and make accurate maps. 
  55. Swimming - You're pretty darn good at swimming.
  56. Taxidermy - Preferably not the creepy kind. Is there a not creepy kind?
So there you have it. That's the list of Merit Badges from the very first edition of the Boy Scout Handbook. Obviously not every adventurer is going to know how to do everything on this list, nor should every PC have a list of the Merit Badges he or she has. Rather, it should illustrate that adventurers should have an awful lot of knowledge about a lot of different stuff. You and I aren't adventurers (as far as I know), and while we might not have the specific sorts of knowledge mentioned here, our characters will need all sorts of crazy and off-the-wall knowledge (as well as some practical stuff, too) just to get by. The list of Merit Badges above is all stuff kids can master, so why would it be hard to believe that your PC can as well?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Probably A Slow Month In Kickassistan

Well, folks, I'm not going to beat around the bush: March is probably going to be a pretty slow month here in Kickassistan. There are a few good reasons for this:

First, March is the month where I spend all of my free time getting Issue #2 of the Metal Gods zine together. For this one, I'll be writing the adventure tool kit, "Secrets of the Serpent Moon," which some folks at the Goodman Games meetup at last year's GenCon got a preview of. +Edgar Johnson just got his writing assignment from me yesterday; he'll be providing some context to the Metal Gods setting by giving an overview of the Elder Races who once held man in slavery. As always, +Wayne Snyder will be rocking out amazing art and another "Dungeon Insert." All in all, it's shaping up to be just as great as issue one.

Second, I'm changing jobs. I don't talk much my real life here, but I'm ending an eight-year tenure with a fairly large company to take up arms with a small business where I feel I can do some serious good. It's looking to be a good fit for me, but it's a bit scary to walk away from eight years of a job I know. So, I'm sure there will be some adjustment. Don't hold it against me.

Third, I'll be putting together a new adventure for GenCon this year. I've never actually run any official, on-the-grid sessions at GenCon, but I'm biting the bullet this year. I plan on running one session of my "To Catch A Fallen Star" funnel adventure, but I plan on trotting out something new this year, too, which should show up first at MichiCon for playtesting (watch out +R.J. Thompson!).

So, I'll be kind of busy this month, without as much time for the blog as I'd like to have. With all the work I've got on my plate, I am of course coming up with tons of projects that feel that they just *HAVE* to get worked on. Today, in a conversation with +Jason Hobbs+Ray Case & +Donn Stroud, I made up a mash-up game that I spent way too much of the evening thinking about and now feel like I've got to write something about. This is how all the intentions to get work done will go awry...

One last thing before I go. I don't do a lot of pimping for crowdfunding campaigns, but I thought it couldn't possibly do any harm to mention that my lovely wife +Kathryn Muszkiewicz has launched an IndieGoGo campaign for her side business where she makes and sells strange and funky buttons. If you're interested in acquiring some distinct and unusual buttons (they call them the "Wearable Weird"), check out her campaign here:

I'm sure by planning to not post much, I'll end up posting more than I think I will.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Warlock Week, Day Seven: Dungeons & Beavers And Uncle Gary

Before I go any further, I'd like to recognize the efforts of both +Zach H (Zenopus himself) & Mr. +Jason Zavoda, without both of whom, this post would not have been possible. Zach helped me parse out exactly which issue of The Strategic Review Gygax talks about Warlock in and Jason reproduced Gary's long letters Alarums & Excursions from 1975 where Uncle Gary expresses two completely different opinions about games like Warlock. Further, I'd like to thank +Tony Rowe for pointing out Gygax's Roleplaying Mastery as another source of the varied opinions of Mr. E. Gary Gygax, many of which are incompatible with each other.

[As an editorial aside, this post has been difficult to write, for a few reasons. (A) Uncle Gary had a tendency to contradict himself, so it can be difficult to create a cohesive picture from the things he wrote. (B) We as gamers tend to think incredibly well of Uncle Gary -- which is his due -- and have a hard time admitting that he was anything short of infallible, and intimating otherwise especially during the week of March 4th is kind of tacky. Also (C), his views might have changed over time, but I make a few suppositions as to why this was that I don't have much evidence for and what evidence I have is largely circumstantial.]

Exhibit One: Gary Wants You To Have Fun Your Way

Uncle Gary wrote the following in Alarums & Excursions #2 back in July, 1975.
I desire variance in interpretation and, as long as I am editor of the TSR line and its magazine, I will do my utmost to see that there is as little trend towards standardization as possible. Each campaign should be a "variant", and there is no "official interpretation" from me or anyone else. If a game of "Dungeons and Beavers" suits a group, all I say is more power to them, for every fine referee runs his own variant of D&D anyway.
 This seems pretty clear-cut, doesn't it? But wait, there's more.
We allow magic-users to employ the number of spells shown on the table, so a 1st level m-u gets exactly one 1st level spell to use once before he must go back to his books and prepare to use the spell once again -- or a spell once again. To allow unlimited use of the spell is to make the m-u's too powerful. There is a better solution, of course; one I have been aware of since the first. That is to utilize a point system based on the m-u's basic abilities and his or her level. Spell cost is then taken as a function of the spell and the circumstances in which it is cast and possibly how much force is put into the spell. All that would have required a great deal of space and been far more complex to handle, so I opted for the simple solution.
So, in an ideal world, where page count wasn't an issue and the basics of rpgs had already been tread and additional complexity could be borne out, Uncle Gary himself would have considered using a spell point system.

Every campaign should vary in rules from every other campaign and Gary had positive thoughts about spell point systems. Check. This sounds like the OD&D I know from the way it's played today. After all, how can we ever forget Uncle Gary's parting words from the Afterword in Volume 3: Underworld & Wilderness Adventures:
There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing. 
Customizing the rules to your game is in the goddamn rules.

Exhibit Two: Gary Wants You To Have Fun The Gary Way

Somewhere after A&E 2, Uncle Gary seems to have slipped in his estimation of homebrewing rules. Here he is in The Strategic Review, Volume 2, Issue 2 (also sometimes called Issue 7).
It requires no careful study to determine that D & D is aimed at progression which is geared to the approach noted above. There are no monsters to challenge the capabilities of 30th level lords, 40th level patriarchs, and so on. Now I know of the games played at CalTech where the rules have been expanded and changed to reflect incredibly high levels, comic book characters and spells, and so on. Okay. Different strokes for different folks, but that is not D & D. While D & D is pretty flexible, that sort of thing stretches it too far, and the boys out there are playing something entirely different — perhaps their own name “Dungeons & Beavers,” tells it best. It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level.
 I feel like it's really telling that Gary specifically says "the boys out there are playing something entirely different... [from D&D]." At this point, it's already only April of '76, meaning that D&D had been out for all of two years and three months, but in that time, there had been a flurry of D&D fan activity. Some of it was even legal. Actually, most of it was legal, but Uncle Gary didn't necessarily see it that way. In Alarums & Excursions #8, Gary mentions that "it is illegal to copy works held under copyright, of course..." but not that the rules of games are not eligible for protection under copyright, but that's a topic for another time.

A little further along in A&E #15 (October '76), Gary comes back with more barbs for the Warlock crew, continuing a similar line of attack from his tSR #7 article, this time using the then-recent release of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes to support his argument.
It seems that Dungeons & Beavers players are getting paranoid. We did not design GODS' simply to shame them or whatever. The supplement was written to conform to the major type of play going on in the country. If the beings therein do not fit into their particular manner of play, it is easy enough to ignore the whole work -- or add a zero to the hit points each can take. Yes, fellows, I find 20th level to be absolutely incredible, for you won't get it in the games hereabouts -- or in most other places which I hear in talking with DMs. It makes good players angry to hear about umpteenth level characters when they have had to play two actual years, carefully and intelligently, to rise to tenth level or so.

Gary isn't outright condemning the Warlock guys, but he does seem to take on an air of superiority here. Now, I can't come remotely close to having even second-hand knowledge about the games, characters and DMing-style prevalent at CalTech back in the day, so I can't debunk Gary's accounts of high level characters in the Warlock games, BUT I'll bet that second-hand knowledge was the best he ever got. Sure, Warlock makes a point of having advancement tables that go up to 20, but each only goes up to 20 and not any higher (except for the Fighter table, which goes up to 22), but that doesn't mean that, at the point in time in question, they were used that high or even higher. There's nothing explicitly in the Warlock rules that encourages Monty Haul-style gaming.

That having been said, campaigns are far more than the sum of their rules. Obviously. As Gary will later point out, there are some features of the Warlock rule set that are, indeed, slightly exploitable.

Exhibit Three: Objects In The Mirror May Be Larger Than They Appear

As Mr. +Tony Rowe pointed out in a comment on an earlier post in this topic, in his 1987 book Role Playing Mastery, Uncle Gary wrote the following (p. 51-52):
There arose a line of thinking that asserted that magic in a fantasy game was best expressed in terms of spell points... The D&D and AD&D games were criticized harshly by advocates of this approach for being behind the times. The fad lasted for a time, with spell-casters spewing forth streams of sorcerous stuff as if they were magical Gatling guns... How much fun is a game in which any challenge or problem can be overcome by calling up yet another spell from a seemingly limitless storehouse of energy? Good-bye, spell-point magic system.
Sure, Gary doesn't call out Warlock by name, or even by the sobriquet "Dungeons & Beavers," but it's pretty obvious where his guns are aimed. Lest the mud of revisiting his prior bias get any less murky, before leaving the issue altogether, Gary goes on to say:
This is not a condemnation of the idea of using a point system, but the point system as advocated did not fit the D&D or AD&D game system spells, rules, assumptions or spirit. The idea is workable still, but needs its own body of surrounding material to operate effectively.
To me, this passage says "sure, someone can do a spell point system and it might not suck," which at first seems like a good direction for Gary to move in, but the tacking on of how it doesn't fit D&D's "...rules, assumptions or spirits" seems pretty targeted, a direct dig at Warlock's continued claim of being a D&D variant (even a "major variant" as TCW claims). 

Verdicts and Wild Conclusions

Let's look at Uncle Gary's arguments against the Warlock and TCW. At first, he's all for differing rule sets for different campaigns. He even writes it into Vol. III. He talks about it in A&E. This is the wild and open spirit of OD&D that gives us awesome stuff like All The Worlds' Monsters, Booty & The Beasts and the entire Wilderlands series. We get The Dungeoneer and White Dwarf. This is the OD&D that blew the lid off of wargaming and created fantasy gaming and made a place at the table for everyone. And then...

Gary's first argument against TCW seems to be all about level inflation. It seems to be about characters stretching beyond the 14th or so level that was the common "achievement cap" (not an actual cap, but a soft cap imposed by play rather than rules). But by the time 1978 rolls around and the 1e PHB is published (along with TCW), Gary seems to have packed in his objections that 20th-level characters are "absolutely incredible," what with levels usually going straight on to 20th level on the advancement tables and occasionally even above. 

So why does Gary feel, in 1987, a need to decry the spell point system in TCW, even if he doesn't do so by name? 

I don't want to be cynical about this, but I'm going to add another piece to this puzzle. 

By 1987 when Role Playing Mastery was released, Gary had already been ousted from TSR. He had either just published or was about to publish Cyborg Commando, which means that he was probably just getting started on a system called Dangerous Dimensions, a project that would come to be called Dangerous Journeys after a Cease-And-Desist order from TSR (for creating a game whose name, if abbreviated, would look an awful lot like the initials of another game Gary wrote). Guess how magic worked in Dangerous Journeys

Yep, it was a spell point system. Ostensibly with the "body of surrounding material to [make it] operate effectively." 

 I don't mean to intimate that Uncle Gary stole things from TCW. The concepts that TCW introduces are actually pretty easy to come up with. Once you have the basics of OD&D (classes, levels, spells, etc.), you can pretty well extrapolate higher levels and spell points. Rather, I suggest that Gary had an unreasonable bias against TCW, and he continues to bash it despite his willingness to adopt some of TCW's concepts. 

I mean no disrespect to the man's memory, but even a cursory examination of early OD&D and AD&D sources including the books themselves and articles written in first tSR and later the Dragon, demonstrates a gradually calcifying attitude toward non-TSR D&D products. From the first, Gary is open to rules deviations. By the time AD&D rolls around, however, the message is clear: no variation from the strict RAW can possibly be called D&D and no house rules should ever be tolerated. Why this change?

Allow me to play the cynic one more time with my suggested answer: money. 

By the time Gary's first arguments against TCW pop up, he's already a minority partner in TSR. By throwing the D&D brand's name around, Gary does everything he can to hedge out competitors (not always successfully) and make sure that only TSR (or the licensees of TSR like Judges Guild) is making money off of the D&D brand and game. It seems that TCW's continued insistence that it's only a D&D variant rather than a game in and of itself wrankles Uncle Gary; if TSR holds the copyright to D&D, why should anyone unauthorized make money off of it? (Again, the concept that one cannot copyright game rules seems to have evaded him.) I feel that this is the source of the bias, one that Gary continues to enforce even after his connection with TSR (and thereby D&D) had ended. "Sure," he says, "you can do spell points in an rpg, just not in D&D. If you want to do spell points, it has to be some other system." Which is more than a little self-serving of him to say, what with him working on a system reliant on spell points. 

And so yes, Uncle Gary didn't like Warlock. And yes, he had his reasons. 

But were they justified? 

I can't say they were.