Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Best Value for Your Buck...

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that tabletop role-playing is one of the BEST ENTERTAINMENT VALUES ever, and point to my own experiences from a time before the hobby went mainstream and computer games were just barely new... 

For two years, between 1980 and 1982, I had only three role-playing books; The AD&D Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual (OK, four counting the Fiend Folio, although I roll this one in with the manual).  I had all the classes and magic spells I could ever want and plenty of monsters to stock my dungeons and keep things moving because, after all, freshness isn't about having a new monster every adventure, but rather, having challenging situations.  Oh, and evil NPCs make the BEST villains!

And the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide offered a LIFETIME supply of excellent DMing advice.  My only other accessory was the DM's screen so I didn't have to consult the tables in-book.

This was enough.  More than enough, really.  You could go forever with just the contents of these books, although I was encouraged to add or change anything, and did so with regularity.  Indeed, this element was the very definition of "value-added" and built upon the initial investment.  It was THE emergent property of the hobby!

Of course, I needed dice and had plenty.  But these lasted long enough and eventually become eroded plastic balls I parted with only reluctantly when I had to.  A small expense that hardly registered against my (really quite modest) early-80s allowance.      

Fantasy Gaming is a treasure
that gives back more than you spend...

Otherwise, I needed paper (including graph paper) and pencils, including colored pencils and ink pens.  But these could easily be rolled into school supply purchases and I never had to buy this stuff myself.  Miniatures were available, but they never really took off in my circles until years later, when Robyn and I wanted to introduce a more visual element into our own games.  So paper and pencil rounded out my modest needs, and I got these free!

Everything else was stuff that money couldn't buy and, really, shouldn't have to buy.  The choices and decisions of the characters in the heat of battle and that truly organic feeling you get when everything goes off the grid and the scenario writes itself through many unpredictable responses.  Once, I had an adventure set in a village festival and made an off-hand comment about a firedrake tied and put on display for the modest sum of 2 SP.  This was too much for the party to bear, and one cantrip later, the beast was released to great chaos!  This little detour took the WHOLE session...

And was BETTER than ANYTHING I had planned!

Of course, we already know this about role-playing.  But my point here is twofold: First, that the best aspects of gaming are totally free and, secondly, that with a MINIMAL INVESTMENT UP FRONT, we enjoy a literal LIFETIME OF ENTERTAINMENT.  With so many products competing for our dollar, there aren't many that can make this claim and live up to it.  Tabletop gaming stands ALONE here...

The immortal Dave Trampier knew
how valuable gaming as a hobby could be... 

Imagine buying a DVD that becomes a different movie every time you put it in.  Or perhaps a book that tells a different story every time you thumb through its pages.  Of course, superior books, music, and literature are timeless and well-worth enjoying again, but our hobby; the ROLE-PLAYING hobby, is ALWAYS something new.

This is because role-playing is a SIMULATION scripted by people, meaning the PLAYERS, making on-the-fly decisions.  And it certainly helps that the action takes place inside the participant's heads instead of on a printed page or other static medium (modern computer games, for all their greatness, are still inherently limited).

I saved some money, bought some rulebooks and some dice, and proceeded to ask my folks for VERY LITTLE game-related for the next two years, not even at Christmas.  Oh, they recognized that this gaming thing occupied much of my free time.  But they also seemed to understand that it didn't require much more than an over-active imagination, and I remain grateful for their support, because it was the 80s, after all, and the Satanic Panic was out there...

This aspect of the hobby might be SLIGHTLY problematic for an industry that needs to market new products.  Remember, I did't buy much (except perhaps Dragon Magazine) for TWO YEARS, and spent a full DECADE playing a game that Robyn and I made up together, which underscores my point.  Once you've found a role-playing system you're happy with and feel comfortable house ruling, you've stumbled upon the BEST ENTERTAINMENT VALUE ANYWHERE.  So check out the many games available, find some you like, and make adventures happen!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Perspective (What Really Matters)...

I remember my first day posting on  The original poster requested OPINIONS on something (I believe it had to do with in-game decision-making) and I found myself VICIOUSLY ATTACKED by a total stranger that lasted through several angry exchanges.  We ended up agreeing to avoid one another's threads (like the plague) because it clearly wasn't going anywhere good.  Not the best intro...

A year later, I'm enjoying MY FIRST DAY on Google+, when someone decided to attack our post about a P&P character sheet.  This quickly devolved into an angry exchange, and I accept more than a little responsibility because I took the bait.

Welcome to the internet, right?  I mean, I totally get that and understand what the anonymity of the web can do to people when they think they can hide behind their avatars.  And I TOOK THE BAIT.

But I ended up feeling bad for both of them, especially on the receiving end of my own anger.  I was a military officer for a good decade of my life and can rip ass with the best of them (and won't hesitate to do so, which ISN'T to my credit here).

I'd like to think I'm doing better.  But what really bothers me is what set these people off in the FIRST PLACE...

I had a DIFFERENT OPINION ABOUT GAMES.  That's right.  My personal opinions about GAMES were seen as a terrible personal flaw and an affront to all right-minded people, which suggests a disturbing lack of perspective about what's really important in this life.

Now obviously, I LOVE gaming and game design.  But if I were told that I had to give it up to save Robyn's life, I'd do so in a heartbeat and feel happy for the privilege, because while gaming is fun, people are ALWAYS more important, which is to say:


Heated, enthusiastic debate?  Sure.  I'll happily offer my own preferences for simple, open-ended game systems.  But I'll never say that people are STUPID or DEFICIENT for thinking otherwise...

I'll debate IDEAS while not attacking PEOPLE, and not just because mere civility demands it.  No, not liking your favorite system doesn't make me (or anyone else) the equivalent of Hitler marching into Poland and doesn't merit ANY KIND of hateful rebuke.    

Gaming is great, but it doesn't define my own character or the character of anyone I care about or respect.  It's creamy icing on the cake, obviously, but that's all.  And when people can attack each other over what amounts to subjective personal preference, they can attack for just about ANYTHING, which is scary... 

For a full year (between 2014-15), Robyn cared for her dying mother and helped her through her final days.  Full-time nursing care is very expensive, and putting her in a home would have been out of the question even if we could have managed it.  So Robyn bravely fought grief and lack of sleep learning (and providing) this care around the clock for an indigent parent who was utterly dependent on others for EVERYTHING.  I'm PHYSICALLY DISABLED and of LIMITED help.

Robyn is a cancer survivor.  I almost lost her.  People everywhere have SIMILAR stories, and they're ALL more important than whether or not we prefer class or skill-based systems.  And given what all of us struggle with at all times, gaming is one hell of a stupid reason for attacking or denigrating others when we should recognize the basic humanity in one another and act on it always...

Luckily, the online community is OVERWHELMINGLY positive, and Robyn and I appreciate the friendship and awesome ideas for everything from food to role-playing.  And, sometimes, it's help for each other when life happens, because life DOES happen to everyone, and human contact (and civility) is our BEST weapon against the online trolls!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Our Tips for "Colorful" Hex Crawls

Ah, the hex crawl.  Those fun and random things that feel like genuine exploration because they're so unscripted that even the GM doesn't know what's gonna happen next.  And they can certainly reduce the GM's workload.  But they can also be challenging when multiple charts are consulted, and the randomness can sometimes work against any sense of an abiding, living world.

So in the interest of compromise and the best of both worlds, we present our hex-crawling tips...


That's right.  Color code your map to delineate different geographic regions, like green for plains and brown for deserts.

You might also consider region-specific restrictions to movement, like 10' per round in bogs or whatever.

Color coding means you can quickly and easily break down regions without looking up names.  And you can color code any corresponding tables as well for (much easier) reference during gameplay.


This might be a legendary dragon known to reside on a distant mountain peak or a terrible band of robbers with a den deep in the primordial woods, etc.  See what we're getting at?

Dave Arneson's famous Blackmoor map...

Design the lair and stock it accordingly.  These are "little modules" of a sort, but try to keep it to just one or two per region to ease your own workload.  It doesn't have to be all at once.


Color coding helps here.  Now you can make region-specific encounter tables that are not only shorter, but still capable of substantial variety consistent with the geography in question.


Potions and scrolls (and other disposables) are fairly common and relatively "mass produced" as it were.  But other things, like enchanted weaponry, should be somewhat unique.  We suggest a general table that emphasizes only the most common objects and refers the user to region-specific tables for more unusual items. 

And when an item is found, CROSS IT OFF THE LIST!  You can add new stuff later, of course, just wait awhile...

Note that this allows the GM to play with the probabilities of locating something if they don't like the list that comes with the system they happen to be using.  Make this your own!

Altitude (and latitude) makes a
big difference and present many challenges... 

Once again, color coding regions makes it easier to reference whatever charts the GM comes up with and actually makes them easier to use during play if you color code the tables too!  


Cities, towns, etc.  This is the VERY HEART of world-building!


Weather happens, even in a fantasy world.  And various factors, including elevation and latitude, will profoundly impact how these things manifest locally.  Crafting region-specific daily weather charts is challenging, but generally worth it.  

Now you might not know it, but yours-truly is a semi-retired meteorologist, and we've made a weather chart available for free as part of our P&P Wilderness Worksheets.  You'll probably need to tailor the impacts slightly to your system of choice, but the chart otherwise tracks the movement of mid-latitude weather systems and accounts for tropical weather, which isn't subject to the same rules by any stretch.  We encourage research in any event!

So that's it.  Subdivide your map into meaningful divisions, customize smaller random tables that are easier to manage and more regionally specific while simultaneously inserting permanent and semi-permanent features of the landscape...   

Hex crawls deviate from the usual pre-stocked dungeon and enable spontaneous exploration.  Even so, a truly thriving world DOES exhibit permanent features and occupants, and these should still be prepared in advance to underscore this point.  But with the right balance, you can maintain both randomness AND creative depth!    

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Revisionist Lord of the Rings?

OK, so we talked about 1977's Rankin/Bass Hobbit and reviewed it favorably against the recent debacle movies.  But it occurred to me that as much as I loved that particular version, especially when compared to Jackson's efforts, it really only succeeds by itself and not as part of the actual trilogy that followed it... 

And so this week's post is about how the Rankin/Bass Hobbit fails, but also how their attempt to take on its sequel was actually pretty good as a REVISIONIST version of the tale!

So to be clear, I hadn't read the hobbit until after I saw the televised version, and put off reading Lord of the Rings until even later, being distracted by the stuff of childhood and a brand new diversion called Dungeons & Dragons that left me, at least for awhile, more interested in gaming rulebooks than inspirational works of 20th century literature!  Such were my priorities then...   

But sometime in-between, I imagined all manner of continuing adventures for Bilbo and his magic ring, including several attempts by the evil Gollum to get it back!  This was pre-internet fan fiction, and pretty fun even if it was pointless.  I mean, I knew there was a sequel out there, and one much darker than my own rather straightforward and morally clear-cut storylines.

Of course, Ralph Bakshi was releasing his own Lord of the Rings animated feature, and its evocative and colorful visuals filled the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland.  So I patiently awaited its release and watched, transfixed, its rotoscoped orcs and epic battle scenes spawned by that little ring of Bilbo's.

This was a pretty straight rendition of the story, deviating only where the necessity of editing and omission required, meaning no new characters to compensate for what amounted to a sausage party of a book, minus Galadriel and some lady hobbits.  But it was also a very incomplete release, because it stopped at The Two Towers!

The Rankin/Bass Return of the King
was a surprisingly dark and mature offering...

It was Lord of the Rings, alright.  But given how the Rankin/Bass Hobbit had been my introduction to Tolkien's universe, Bakshi's film felt alien (despite being more authentic), both in style and tone, and I found myself longing for something closer to the imaginary fan fiction I had spent the previous year dreaming up.

Fortunately, Rankin/Bass had a Return of the King in the works, closing out this patchwork animated trilogy by returning to the look and feel of their animated Hobbit.  This ran in 1980, just in time for me to start growing up and begin thinking I was too old for this sort of thing (I've long since come to my senses, luckily)...

The story begins with the hobbits and Galdalf at Rivendell to celebrate Bilbo's birthday, when Bilbo notices that Frodo is missing one of his fingers!  Of course, this demands an explanation, and Gandalf spends the rest of the program telling it.  So the mission to destroy the One Ring is cleverly told in flashback, making it easier to gloss over the first two books of the trilogy!

Nice!  But it's a bit confusing having Sam, Merry, and Pippin suddenly inserted, although real efforts are made to flesh out these characters, and it mostly works.  Aragorn and Denethor are nicely brought into the story as the narrative unfolds, noting that while this approach technically succeeds (mostly), it also points to major shortcomings when compared to the Hobbit offering...  

Aragorn is both elevated and diminished minus his humanizing backstory, and the complex historical (and political) situation that required Gondor to even NEED a steward is pretty much overlooked, making major events feel random instead of the culmination of many disparate events.  Now, while this shouldn't be a requirement of something ostensibly meant for children, the program is remarkably dark and intense at times, making it feel pretty conflicted.

In general, everyone who ISN'T Gandalf or a hobbit is reduced to mere window dressing.  A necessary backdrop.  And the overall feeling is that of a historical narrative with many important events inserted Cliff Notes style in top-down fashion...

Legolas was a wood elf, and here,
Bakshi's (right) clearly did a better job!

In short, characters are introduced suddenly and with little real context if they aren't just taken at face value, and important events occur in rapid-fire succession that feels frenetic, although the producers appear to recognize this and exploit it to create a sense of urgency.  Oh, and the Witch King sounded for all the world like Skeletor, which I'm divided on!

But the program succeeds on many levels as well.  Visually, it matches the Hobbit, but that's not all.  Despite the much-vaunted realism of Bakshi's effort, the Rankin/Bass version feels more energetic and choreographs its many battle sequences far better than rotoscope could pull off.  The orcish ram, Grond (an interesting inclusion), had more action, grit, and realism than anything Bakshi managed to pull off, perhaps because the animation was freer.

Frodo and Samwise are reasonably well developed in their journey through Mordor, and the production team seemed to realize that Sam was the REAL hero of the story.  Merry and Pippin are similarly developed, along with the wizard Gandalf, via two encounters with the Witch King and an exchange with Denethor that is actually quite chilling and captures the latter's madness well. 

Indeed, this compact version carefully and thoughtfully chose the right scenes for maximum story advancement as well as character development, and the fact that it's really hobbit-centric works on several levels.  Now the songs aren't as good, with the possible exception of the great "Where There's a Whip There's a Way", which addresses the goblin's own feelings about going to war.

Indeed, there's this sequence where human and orcish soldiers are arguing over access to a road that touches on the subject of racial relations between Sauron's various servitors.  This is something generally overlooked, and it adds a layer of thoughtful nuance to an otherwise straightforward take on good and evil...

The Rankin/Bass version of The
Hobbit and Return of the King succeeds
as its own thing and quite well...

And so the ring is destroyed and the world saved, and at the end it's revealed that the elves would depart and the Age of Men begin, and that the hobbits would steadily grow in size(!) and gradually merge into the human population.  This is an original concept and at odds with Tolkien, but it speaks to a charming REINTERPRETATION of the story that's utterly fascinating in its implications.

Years later, I think I've worked these things out...

The Rankin/Bass Hobbit FAILS as a prelude to the REAL trilogy primarily due to its visual representation of elves.  It's hard to imagine Legolas as a green troll or Aragorn falling in love with someone having a literal ring of stars circling around their heads, although Captain Kirk was none too particular.

And it FAILS as a prelude to Bakshi's film because the style and overall tone are off (Bakshi was doubtless more true to the visual style Tolkien had in mind, even if his Balrog was boring).  

But then again, Bakshi's film FAILS as a prelude to the Rankin/Bass version (on similar grounds) of Return of the King.

But when you take the Rankin/Bass Hobbit and Return of the King together, minus all that other stuff, you get a coherent and internally consistent REVISIONIST retelling of the trilogy, one that doesn't require Galadriel or Tom Bombadil to succeed, because the emphasis is on the hobbits.  Indeed, you get the feeling of a wider world mostly beyond these simple little people, who struggle just to find their own place in it, and it WORKS on this level.

Upon closer examination, Tolkien's original trilogy was to the Rankin/Bass animated version analogous to what 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was to the simpler Dungeons & Dragons ruleset that ran alongside it through much of the 1980s and 90s, which is a fitting comparison given how much all of them figured into my own evolution as a gamer and fantasy enthusiast.  It's ALL good...