Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Explore a Futuristic Kowloon Walled City as a Cat?!

After reading Jim Butcher's latest book, The Aeronaut's Windlass, I found myself confused by some of the public book reviews. I saw many references to "giant talking cats" popping up from time to time. It's true there are cats in the book. It is also true, to a certain extent, that they talk. The thing is, they aren't "giant" cats and they don't "talk" in any way that is particularly fantastic. In Butcher's book, the "fantastic" thing isn't that cats can talk, rather the fantasy element is that some humans can speak cat. In our own "non-fantastic" world, grown cats only seem to meow in order to communicate with humans. They will, in fact, modify their meows to create a subtle cat to human interactions that simulate language, but we humans seem to be pretty dim when it comes to understanding what cats are trying to say. Some of us are, that is.

What really impressed me was Butcher's ability to write about cats without overly anthropomorphizing them, though there are Warrior Born who go a little in that direction. He was so successful in his writing that he created an interest I didn't know I had, an interest in playing a cat based adventure game on the computer or console. It looks like game designers Koola and Viv are working on a project that will perfectly scratch this its. They are working on a third-person adventure game where you play as a cat exploring a terrain based on Kowloon Walled City. I don't think I could ask for more.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Throwback Thursday Gaming: Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons

"I was busy rescuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up. Fifty feet of scaled terror glared down at us with smoldering red eyes. Tendrils of smoke drifted out from between fangs larger than daggers. The dragon blocked the only exit from the cave.

Sometimes I forget that D&D® Fantasy Adventure Game is a game and not a novel I'm reading or a movie I'm watching."

Thus opens the Tom Moldvay edited Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook, and with those words my own fascination with the role playing game hobby began. It's a simple - even simplistic - introduction to a fantasy tale. It begins with that most cliche of story lines, the rescuing of a maiden, which was stale even at the time the rules were being published. It was such a stale trope that the film Dragonslayer, a rare truly magical fantasy film from the 80s, used a reversal of that cliche as a central component to its narrative. But the imagery of "smoldering red eyes" and "fangs larger than daggers" was more than enough to capture my childhood imagination.

It is often said that "the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12," meaning that what each reader considers the Golden Age of Science Fiction is the literature they read when they were 12 years old. While there is some small amount of truth to that, I do have a fond spot for the fiction I read when I was 12 and I was briefly under the nostalgia induced delusion that the 80s Fright Night was better than the more recent remake, but it isn't always the case. In fact, my favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy - and those I think are canonical "Golden Age" classics - are stories I read in my 20s and 30s. What's ironic is that the stories I read in my 20s and 30s are the "traditional" classics, while the stories I read when I was 12 where the avant garde rebels. My 12 year-old Golden Age is Moorcock's Elric & Corum, Donaldson's "Land," and Cook's Black Company. It wasn't until I was older that I gained a true appreciation of Tolkien, C.L. Moore, Kuttner, Heinlein, Asimov, Burroughs, Howard, and so many others.

Given my referential baseline of Fantasy literature - Moorcock, Donaldson, and Cook - it might seem odd that Moldvay's Basic set would be the one that set my imagination alight. The book's line art, most of it by Bill Willingham, Erol Otis, Dave LaForce, and Jeff Dee, is a far cry from gritty and looks closer to the art that would be featured on the D&D cartoon than it does to the covers of a Black Company or Elric novel. Even odder is that by the time I came to be introduced to D&D, the Mentzer edition was already in publication, and the Jeff Easley art it featured was much closer to the fantasy images my readings brought to mind. Yet, to this day, when I think about what is best about D&D, I think about the Moldvay rules.

Tom Moldvay's editing of the Basic Set presented the D&D rules in a clear and easy to understand manner that left little ambiguity in my young mind regarding how the game was played. Having read the Original Little Brown Books that were the first public presentation of the D&D rules, I now understand what a remarkable task this was. Yes, Moldvay was following in the footsteps of Dr. Holmes' first Basic Set and was able to stand on the good Doctor's shoulders. Dr. Holmes first Basic set presented D&D's rules in an intelligible way, but the rules were written for the older teen to adult gamer. Tom Moldvay's rules, as should be evident by the fact that his "Appendix Moldvay" of recommended readings is filled with Young Adult and Kid's Literature, were designed as an introduction for the young gamer. That's what makes the edition so strong. It presents rules that could be described as arcane and mysterious, in a manner that most 10 year olds could begin running a game within a couple of hours...and they'd be enjoyable hours of reading. Not just because of the clearly written prose, but also because of that lovely line art.

Do yourself a favor. If' you've never read this edition, go back and read the Moldvay Basic Set. It's a bargain and well worth giving a try.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Hedgehobbit Discusses VanGrasstek's DUNGEON -- An Early Indie RPG

In addition to work, TA-ing, grading, and working on my prospectus, I've been toiling around with creating rules that approximate how I would have played D&D if I had been an adult when the original Little Brown Books were published. I've been reading and re-reading the Chainmail rules and reading sections of the original D&D rulebooks to get a sense of how I would have understood those rules if I had never played the game, no one was there to teach me the game, and all I had was these physical documents from which to develop a game. It's an interesting challenge, but it's the challenge that many early gamers faced.

I've been a fan of the fanzine Alarums & Excursions since it was first introduced to me by Gary at Aero Hobbies. Gary, who is sadly no longer with us, was a central figure in the Southern California role playing game scene. His gaming group is responsible for the creation of the Thief Class for D&D, think about that the next time you backstab someone in game play. When I walked into Gary's store, I was new to the Los Angeles area, but he quickly made me feel at home in this metropolis and introduced me to a number of wonderful people. He was a one man social network, and the issue of Alarums & Excursions he first handed me was like a social network in print form. Prior to reading this issue, I had heard of the zine but I had no idea what to expect. What I found was that it was like reading the best parts of a very creative discussion forum, a forum where people didn't hastily respond and thus where the worst of forums rarely reared its head.

What most amazes me about Alarums & Excursions is the creativity, this is especially true in the early issues. Reading the first few issues of the zine - and I'll be discussing my adventures reading the zine in detail in a series of posts - I was struck by how varied the interpretations of how to play D&D were. I'm not saying that I was struck by the differences in "house rules," though those are remarkable as well, rather I was struck by how differently people interpreted the rules of the original books. The early 70s was truly a time when everyone was playing a different version of D&D, and that makes the era all that more exciting to me.

So I want to try to capture some of that magic. I want to play D&D as I "would have" played it if I'd been around then to do so. What would my D&D have looked like? In order to help me on this quest, I've read a couple of other attempts to create rules for "Playing D&D with Chainmail" and I'll share my thoughts on those when I share my version of how to do just that. I've also been reading Craig VanGrasstek's rules for Dungeon  written in 1974. VanGrasstek's rules, discussed in the video by Hedgehobbit embedded below, are one player's attempt to reverse engineer D&D from a playing session.

Let me repeat that. VanGrasstek's rules are a reverse engineered version of D&D based upon his experience in a gaming session. That's how explosively creative and desiring of new kinds of play the 70s were, it's also what we see a lot of today in the DIY game community. Reading VanGrasstek's rules have given me a sense of the kinds of things that get "lost" in interpretation, and I'll be keeping those in mind as I design "How I Would Have Played LBB D&D." I think it will be a fruitful exercise, and I hope that I'll be able to convince my gaming group into giving my LBB D&D a try. Maybe we can even see a bunch of different versions of D&D in our group and try them all.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Space Hulk Deathwing Looks to Be a Stunning FPS

I remember the first time I saw the Space Hulk board game being played at a gaming convention in the Bay Area. I was amazed. Watching as blip counters were turned over and revealed to be either "false positives" or hordes of Alien-esque xenos who's claws could rip through the thick armor of Space Marine Terminators changed what I viewed was possible in board game design. I'll admit I was young, but that was the effect none the less. It should come as no surprise that one of my favorite game designers, Matt Forbeck, listed it as worthy of recognition as one of the Top 100 Hobby Games of All Time.

Video game adaptations of the franchise have been hit or miss. The computer adaptation in the 90s, also ported over to 3D0 systems, was as difficult to win (as the Marines) as the board game, but due to the lack of the social component that exists in board games it never really captured my imagination in the same way as the table top version. More recent turn based versions have been much more successful. These games tend to use a top down POV and provide players with a robust gaming experience. The new Space Hulk video game goes beyond translation of the table top game to video game format and shifts the franchise fully over into the First Person Shooter genre. It's nice to see one of the franchises that inspired the action of early FPS games finally get, at least by what is shown in the new game play video, an exciting FPS of its own.