Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Six Cartographic Detours

In looking through the last few topics on the D&D 30-day challenge, I find myself either shrugging my shoulders at things that don't apply to the version I grew up with, or scratching my head wondering how my answers would differ from what I already said in some of the earlier questions.  Thus, I've made the executive decision to declare the challenge over and done with, and replace it with something that I always found much more inspiring for my RPG adventures...


Click (any of them) for bigger versions
I suppose one can't get around the need to start with Tolkien.  A lot of people talk about how he supposedly wrote The Lord of the Rings in order to weave a story around the fictional languages that he spent decades crafting.  But he also created a visual world, filled with forbidding mountains, murky forests, and eerie swamps.  He also envisioned how that world changed -- sometimes violently -- over thousands of years.

The map above (found on a forum thread) shows a spooky before-and-after overlay of what happened to the elven lands of Beleriand when it became collateral damage in an epic war between good and evil spirits.  Still, who knows what the future will hold?  The elf queen Galadriel once talked about what may happen when "...the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again."

Closer to the modern age -- but still existing sideways in the land of imagination -- are the fictional cities of DC comics...

Don't worry about the thought balloon above; just have a squint at the details on that map.  Unlike the heroes of Marvel Comics, who tended to hang out in New York City -- where the writers lived -- the DC heroes often inhabited fictional cities of their own.  Everyone knows that Superman lives in Metropolis and Batman lives in Gotham City.  There were dozens of others, too.  To their credit, DC has artfully maintained the fiction that these places are not just silly pseudonyms for the Big Apple for many decades.

(Some writers took inspiration from other places... Superman's creators Siegel and Shuster modeled the Daily Planet building after a real newspaper tower in their home city of Toronto.)

The map above, from a 1978 newspaper strip, shows that shiny Metropolis is "really" just east of Dover, Delaware, and grim Gotham is just across the river near Fairfield Township, New Jersey.  Who knew?  :-)

Maybe we should move closer to "reality?"

Check out those purple and green regions.  I remember first seeing the above map in a historical atlas in my elementary school's library.  The idea that there once was a proposal to craft mid-western states called "Transylvania" and "Vandalia" blew my little mind.  Can you imagine TFC (Transylvanian Fried Chicken)?

Hmm, maybe that's all a bit too close to reality for fantastical role-playing.  How about if we zoom out by a few dozen orders of magnitude...

Cue the Alexander Courage theme song!  Above is a page from Franz Joseph's 1975 Star Fleet Technical Manual, which because of some strange licensing agreements didn't appear able to directly reference names like "Kirk" or "Spock" -- though "Enterprise" was snuck in there.  Subsequent generations of fandom and TV shows may have changed the details, but the above is how I always think about that universe.  That page also introduced me to some real history, too!  :-)

Another way to be blinded by science (fiction) is to sit too close to the Sun...

For a long time, astronomers believed Mercury was "tidally locked" like the Moon is in its orbit around the Earth.  They thought that there was a molten side that always faced the Sun, and a side that sat in eternal night.  In between the two was a region that you can see gave Rod Serling some great inspiration.  The above image is from the 1940s pulp adventures of Captain Future... I first saw it in an awesome book from the 1970s called An Atlas of Fantasy.

(FYI, Mercury isn't really tidally locked, but there are hundreds of planets around other stars that are!)

Lastly is probably one of the very first fantasy worlds I experienced through the magic of television...

I couldn't find an actual map of the Neighborhood of Make Believe, so I had to make do with this wide-angle photo of the original set.  You may not know a lot of things as a toddler growing up in the early 70s, but you know that the castle is on the left, the tree housing the owl and cat is in the middle, and the clock without hands is on the right.  Oh, and you also know that any museum that isn't also a giant merry-go-round is totally lame!  :-)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Me... In... Space...

No, I haven't been accepted into the astronaut program -- yet!

However, my namesake, the Orbital Sciences CYGNUS spacecraft, has just made its first flight into orbit!  (They must be Rush fans, too.)  If you look closely at the press photos, you can see that it's named after yours truly.  Here, let me blow it up for you...

I think the entry of private companies into space flight is an extremely hopeful sign for the future.  More players make for a more exciting and competitive game, leading to lower costs and new ideas.  Still, there's plenty of room for the government to fund the really big, visionary projects -- if it so chooses.  I was excited to see an article in this month's Physics Today outlining some grand ideas for how to really accomplish an interstellar trip to Alpha Centauri.  (It's pretty rare to see speculation like this in that great, but slightly musty and stodgy, magazine!)

All the more impetus for this Cygnus to get moving on his project for a Space Race / Right Stuff inspired role playing game.  Initial ideas for that game are here and here.  We'll see what the fuuuuuuture holds!  :-)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Fighting On through the D&D 30 Day Challenge

More fun with the month-long blog party!

(14) Favorite NPC

The Non-Player Character (NPC) is often the Dungeon Master's trusty outlet for misdirection, MacGuffin plot development, and overall hamming it up.  However, I don't know if I can recall any of my own NPCs by name -- other than a few famous denizens of Middle Earth who appeared that time I popped everyone through a dimensional rift.

What I can remember is my most embarrassing bit of NPC acting as a DM.  It was definitely during high school... probably age 16 for me.  The NPC was a minor bad-guy, sort of comic relief prior to the players encountering the real villain.  Earlier that day, I remember clearly that a TV show I usually watched was pre-empted for something else... something that skewed distinctly, um, younger in its intended demographic than what was usually on at that time.

Yes, it was Strawberry Shortcake.  To my later regret, I was too lazy to get up and change the channel (no remote control!), and I watched it.  The bad guy on that show was the Purple Pie-Man, and he did a little ha-cha-cha sort of short song when announcing his presence.  That song stuck in my brain like super glue, and I ended up using it for the comic-relief NPC.

Being an only child, it kind of slipped my mind that several of my friends at the table had younger siblings who would be watching a show like this on the big family TV, and that the older sib might have absorbed it by osmosis.  I was caught!  The ribbing was fierce, but short-lived.  :-)

(15) Favorite Monster (Undead)

Got to be all of the bat-poop crazy variants on the undead from the Fiend Folio.  Artist Russ Nicholson gave vibrant life to those wild British imports.

(16) Favorite Monster (Aberration)

Aren't they all horrific aberrations of nature?  Still, the morkoth might take the cake for having the most chilling and creepy image in the 1st edition Monster Manual.

(17) Favorite Montster (Animal/Vermin)

Gotta be wolves.  Not only does the howling foreshadow all kinds of primal terror, but if the sound comes from multiple directions, then the players may just be outnumbered... and surrounded!

(18) Favorite Monster (Immortal/Outsider)

I think the Rakshasa falls in this category.  Nowhere else in the original Monster Manual is there a sentence filled with such foreboding as the first line of their entry:
"Known first in India, these evil spirits encased in flesh are spreading."
Some treat them as crafty, but still beast-like at heart.  I'd tend to treat them with more subtlety... maybe using their ESP and illusion powers to go undercover in human society... having patience for a big payoff down the road.  I used them in this way in this short adventure concept as proprietors of a gambling den.

(19) Favorite Monster (Elemental/Plant)

You know, I think these questions might just be a tad padded with fluff to get up to the magic number of 30.

(20) Favorite Monster (Humanoid/Natural/Fey)

The biggest guys... giants, titans, ettins... fascinated me quite a bit.  Probably because they came in a colorful palette of types (like the dragons and demons) but still had more-or-less human societies and foibles -- kind of like mortal versions of the gods.  At the risk of plugging another old post, I suggested a random giant generation system for people who wanted to spring something new on players.

(21) Favorite Dragon

A giant, ancient red dragon always seemed to be most appropriate for being a party's classic, eternal, elusive foe.  One of my friends from high school was a master storyteller of a DM who, over the course of years, caused us to just seethe with hate when we encountered the dreaded Ignis Unus.  (I have a feeling that's not perfect Latin for "The Fiery One," but we didn't care!)  :-)

But my own favorite type of dragon goes off that beaten path.  I always loved the idea of the tiny little pseudo-dragon most of all.

It's approximately the same size and disposition as a house-cat, and can communicate with its master via telepathy.  It can also blend into its surroundings like a chameleon and sting its enemies with its lightning-sharp tail.  Okay, it may be a bit of nerdish wish fulfillment, but you can't deny the coolness of the concept!  :-)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Adventuring with the D&D 30 Day Challenge

I'm going to continue bundling my answers to the ongoing September RPG house party.  The full list of questions is here, and below is this week's crop of answers...

(7) Favorite Edition

1st edition AD&D.  I liked the Holmes basic box, but never looked back after getting those three original hardcovers.

I'm sure someone else has made the following analogy between the timing of D&D editions...
  • 1977: First basic boxed set 
  • 1980: 1st edition AD&D books hitting the market 
  • Early 80s: Newer AD&D products (UA, OA, Dragonlance) start to go downhill; seeds sown for 2nd edition. 
  • Late 90s: After some dormancy and changing of the guard, 3rd edition is a very different kettle of fish (a stinky one, if you ask me) 
  • Early-mid 2000s:  3.5 edition, 4th edition.  Not my bag, baby.
...and the timing of something else:
  • 1977: Star Wars 
  • 1980: Empire Strikes Back  (peak of quality, many say) 
  • Early 80s: Return of the Jedi.  Still okay, but Ewoks, really?
  • Late 90s: After some dormancy, Phantom Menace.
  • Early-mid 2000s:  The rest of the prequels.  "Noooooo!"
The analogy isn't perfect, of course.  (I'm not going to look for parallels between 1974's OD&D and American Graffiti!)  Looking forward, I suppose one can add to both lists:
  • 2014-2015: Yet another reboot.
I'm interested in seeing what both of those are all about, but I'm not holding my breath.  :-)

(8) Favorite Character You Have Played

There were two:  a human fighter named Arwold Archmalios, and a human cleric named Ingomer Lakhshmin.  The hodge-podge of names from different cultural backgrounds made (somewhat) more sense in the context of the Atlantis-like continent of their birth.

Arwold didn't have too many distinguishing personality traits, and was probably more a throwback to the featureless player stand-in PCs of late 70s OD&D.  He did carry around a sawed-off bardiche (which was usually a long pole topped by a curvy metal axe) that I managed to convince everyone did just as much damage as a full bardiche but could be wielded as easily as a sword.  My mental image of red-bearded Arwold was staring back at me from my AD&D Dungeon Master's Screen...

Ingomer's first adventure was L1: The Secret of Bone Hill, which contained the "Church of the Big Gamble."  The priests there were into randomness and worshiping the gods of chance and fortune.  I got the idea that Ingomer would be enthralled by this concept, and I searched through the Deities & Demigods book until I found Xochipilli, the Aztec god of gambling and chance, to be his patron deity.  That also was a decent fit for my crazy Atlantis-like continent!  :-)

They both made it up to something around 15th level before retiring and passing on the baton to the next generation.

(9) Favorite Character You Haven't Played

Ummm... not sure I understand this one.  Unless the questioner is talking about licensed properties (like playing Harry Potter or Gandalf), the characters don't exist until you create them.  Even at that point, they're just a few numbers on a page.  You've got to run them around for a while, and let them grow into themselves.

Now, as a DM, I might look forward to "playing" the roles of a few unused NPCs that I've come up with over the years.  Gotta have good villains!  I've got a great voice picked out for Manannan of Montfort, for example.

(10) Craziest Thing That Happened [in an RPG adventure]

The square brackets above clarify my interpretation of this question.  I might get people in trouble if I were to answer that more broadly!

Thing is, this all was 30 years ago.  I remember some crazy-fun D&D sessions.  There was a time when some really innovative thinking and teamwork got the party across a deadly chasm.  The success bred a kind of natural high that lasted for a couple of days (in real time, not game time!) afterward.  But I couldn't even begin to remember enough detail to bring that to life again.  :-(

(11) Favorite Adventure You Ran

At the time, the favorite adventure that I created from scratch was a high-level extra-planar extravaganza, capped by a confrontation with Orcus.  I called it "War in Heaven," and might have even had The Battle of Evermore playing in the background or something.  Too bad it was a massive railroad from start to finish.

(12) Favorite Dungeon Type / Location

My friends and I started out with many a bog-standard "dungeon crawl," so when I got into DMing, I always tried to stretch beyond that.  The few times I started new first-level groups from scratch, I led off with B3: Palace of the Silver Princess.  I suppose it's an above-ground dungeon crawl, but there's less of a problem in trying to justify the existence of a large semi-abandoned mansion than there is explaining why there's a multi-level underground ecosystem filled with monsters and treasure.  :-)

Thinking back, I guess I did tend to prefer adventures with some component set in houses or castles.  That part felt like an open-ended game of Clue!  The Clockwork Mage was kind of like that, too.

(13) Favorite Trap / Puzzle

I don't think I excelled at crafting these kind of mind-frack exercises.  I do remember once inflicting this quite sadistic, but ultimately harmless "trap" (from Dragon magazine #35) on my friends:

Should be readable if you right-click it into a new window

They forgave me.  :-)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

D&D 30 Day Challenge: First Faves

I'm going to do the rest of the week's answers to the D&D 30-day challenge in this post.  We'll see if I can catch up to the rest of you in real time on the weekend...  :-)

(2) Favorite playable race

This probably sounds like a very strange query to those who don't know D&D.  But remember your Tolkien!  Fantasy worlds need not be so human-o-centric as our own.  But it's kind of strange that the word "race" is used for this... it really should be "species."

I once would have said that my favorite race was the dwarves.  For some reason, in the 80s the whole "Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!" thing was flowing in my blood.  (That was the chilling battle cry of the dwarves in The Lord of the Rings.)  I devoured every page of MERP's Moria expansion book, even though I never played or owned MERP. One of my go-to PCs back then was a dwarven fighter named Ulman Burinnil, who was obsessed with finding the legendary Battle-Axes of Clanggedin.

Dragon magazine #58:  required reading!
If I were to start playing again these days, I'd be in favor of forgetting about all those demi-, hemi-, and semi- human races.  It's probably more fun to explore the depth and breadth that can be found with "mere" humans as the only playable characters.

(3) Favorite playable class

For all my fascination with magic, gods, and outer planes, I think the class I played the most often was the simple fighter.  Maybe my mind was too focused on the times when I would run a game as Dungeon Master to want to worry too much about being the "cerebral one" when I was on the other side of the screen playing a character.

(4) Favorite game world

I've really only played in one:  a shared world in which each of my high-school friends had responsibility for one "continent."  When the DM duties shifted from one of us to the other, we hand-waved that the characters decided to take a long sea journey.  :-)

My own continent was always in a state of rebuilding and repair, since I was constantly trying to stuff in new ideas.  The shape of that continent didn't change over the years, though... it was based on the northern part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge -- i.e., a huge "what-if" Atlantis scenario.

(5) Favorite set of dice or individual die

I had a pair of d12's that never got much use.  One was black with white numbers; the other white with black numbers.  Very yin/yang.  I ought to stroll through the archives of The Dungeon Dozen blog to find some good d12 random tables for use and/or adaptation in Homebrew '82.

(6) Favorite deity

Oh, I couldn't choose just one.  I jonesed on the D&D books that listed all the gods, demi-gods, and legendary heroes, but that was a bleed-through of my overall love of mythology and polytheism that still continues now.  I did play one cleric for many years that was devoted to a particular Mesoamerican god, but I'll talk about him later.

By far, my favorite PICTURES of deities in D&D were Jeff Dee's illustrations in the 1st edition Deities & Demigods book.  He recently used Kickstarter to fund re-creating his original art (which the company owned, and eventually tossed into a dumpster).  Here's a link to the Kickstarter campaign for the Egyptian god section -- there are several others.  I think my favorite of the Egyptians was Ptah... also known as the One You Never Want to Have a Staring Contest With...

For those unfamiliar with these books... I invite you to wonder at the fact that they listed such precise numerical details about the properties of supposedly infinite and immortal beings!  :-)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

September D&D Deja Vu Challenge

Okay... Back from hiatus.  Those sluggish bow-wow days of summer can really sap one's motivation to get much done.  Nice, then, for the online old-school role playing community to start the fall by throwing a party...

I first learned about this challenge on Tim Brannan's blog, and I'm not sure where it originated.  I'm kind of keen on doing this because right now is the 2nd anniversary of my very first month-long blog challenge:  2011's September of Short Adventures!  (My entries are archived here.)  Is it too "meta" to be nostalgic for a relatively recent indulgence in nostalgia?  :-)

I wish that I had the time to do daily posts, but I'm afraid I'll have to collect several days' worth of responses into chunks, and micro-style them up for y'all.  We'll see how it goes.  For now, here's today's question:

(1) How you got started.

It had to have been 1979 when I first laid eyes on the AD&D Monster Manual.  That sucker fueled my dreams for at least 6 months before I got the urge to actually play this strange game.  I remember wanting to create larger-format copies of many of the evocative illustrations in that book, and I experimented with the grid method with some success.  Thankfully, I knew enough not to mark up my book!  :-)

Soon, though, I got my hands on a Holmes Basic blue box and realized what it was all about.  It took me a while, and several clumsy attempts to run a dungeon for friends (and one girl I was seriously crushing on) before I really figured out that an explicit "game board" (i.e., a dungeon map on which the metal figurines were placed) wasn't needed at all.

Also, my love of all the strange creatures from the Monster Manual impelled me to stock my first dungeons with far too many deadly foes than my friends' newly rolled-up characters could handle.  I don't think it helped my chances with my 8th grade crush that I killed off her character (along with all the others in that party)!

It wasn't until 1982 that my friends and I started up the long-term AD&D campaign that got us through high school, and was periodically refueled during college breaks until about 1989 or 1990.  We stuck with 1st edition AD&D through it all, though near the end I bought the 2nd edition core books with the idea of converting and writing up some of my adventures for submission to the new "Dungeon" magazine.  Grad school (1990-1996) put a damper on those ideas for a long while... but thanks be to the Old School Renaissance, which I discovered (via Jeff) around 2007!  :-)

Okay, that was a bit longer than "micro-style," so maybe I'll just end it here for now.  Stay tuned!