Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Shadow of the Demon Lord is Frighteningly Good [Part One] -- Could It Be Satan?

Robert J. Schwalb prefaces his new role playing game Shadow of the Demon Lord with a brief discussion of how he entered into the role playing game hobby. As with many of us, his introduction to the hobby was Dungeons & Dragons. Based on the fact that Schwalb asked Frank Mentzer to write a foreward to the game, I'm going to venture a guess and say that Schwalb and I share the fact that our introduction to D&D was Mentzer's excellent re-edit of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic set. I had a lot of fun with that game, and by the sound of it Schwalb did as well.

Schwalb's preface makes something else clear, we both had to "grapple" with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and how that affected the way people viewed the role playing game hobby. It's in his description of his personal reaction to the Satanic Panic where Schwalb and I differ.

In my own personal experience with Dungeons & Dragons, by which I mean the way my friends and I played it, devils/demons were viewed as imaginary generic villains to be defeated by devoted Paladins. In my young mind's eye, the devils and demons of the game were cartoony and less genuinely malevolent than they were "Maleficent." They were there to be defeated in the same way children defeated witches in fairy tales. When I encountered people who worried for the safety of my soul, I was more confused than angry. I remember when my parents moved to the Bay Area and we lived with a coworker of my father's while we found a more permanent residence. One night, while I was playing a game on the Atari, one of our hosts mentioned this sinister game that was threatening the souls of young children. I didn't hear the panic in the person's voice, I only heard the words Dungeons & Dragons, so I quickly interjected in an almost bored way, "yeah, I play D&D and I love it." This did not go over well with our hosts, but I don't remember the rest of the conversation. Yar's Revenge was more important than any criticism of D&D. It wasn't until a game group I was a part of had to play Star Frontiers instead of D&D due to "satanic" elements that I became annoyed.

Why wasn't I worried? Let me give you a glance at some of the evil horrors that threatened to consume the soul of a D&D player.

Here we have Asmodeus as he was portrayed in the AD&D Monster Manual. Don't get me wrong, those eyes are a bit disturbing. As for the rest of the image, I'd seen more disturbing get ups when I took BART over to Berkeley...and I'm just talking about the other customers at the local comic shop. Asmodeus doesn't look particularly "cool." He looks like typical 70s "sleeze" and that had zero temptation appeal. He certainly doesn't look frightening.

The devils got a little more frightening with Baalzebul, the Lord of the Flies, but a horned beast head with fly eyes is only so frightening. Given that the image ins sharp line art, it lacks any real frightening impact and a guy who is "The Lord of the Flies" doesn't sound like he has a lot to offer a 10 year old. I mean c'mon, he's the Lord of things that eat poop. I'll just stab him in the face, IN THE FACE, with my Holy Avenger for the XP thank you very much.
This isn't to say the artwork wasn't good. I really like the illustrations in AD&D, it's just to say that none of these images had any verisimilitude or compelled me to fall into devil worship. I'd rather tell a good story about good conquering evil. In a world where evil exists, and where we often feel helpless to fight it, it's nice to have a place where you know that Good will be victorious.

That's my experience. Schwalb's was a little different. 

According to game designer Robert J. Schwalb's preface to Shadow of the Demon Lord, "D&D had been [his] game -- at least until it was decided there was too much Satan in its pages for me to play and keep my soul intact, and so I was forced to find other games to scratch my roleplaying itch. The Old World of Warhammer provided a far darker and scarier place than anything that D&D had to offer and thus it had me entranced." 

When I first read this, I almost read it as Schwalb thinking that D&D had "too much Satan" in it. Upon many re-readings, I've come to think that like my friend who was forced to play Star Frontiers instead of D&D to avoid "Satan" In my case, this created a journey from D&D to Flash Gordon -- and eventually superheroes. In Schwalb's case, this was a journey from Satan, to what my group jokingly called "Super-Mega-Ultra-Satan."  

Let's just compare those D&D "Satanic" image above to the "non-Satanic" influences of Warhammer. Let's just say that Schwalb hit the nail on the head when he says it is a far darker and scarier place than D&D. When one looks at the Chaos books of Warhammer, you can see why my friends call it "Super-Mega-Ultra-Satan." 

Also, it's amazing. My old Warhammer Realm of Chaos books are favorites of my collection.

When you look at Robert J. Schwalb's new role playing game Shadow of the Demon Lord, you can see the influence of both D&D and Warhammer. The cover of the rulebook has a demon that is clearly influenced by D&D's Orcus, but the style and horror elements are dialed up to 11 and are pure Warhammer.

None of these comments should be viewed as a criticism of Schwalb's game, which I think is one of the most exciting games both thematically and mechanically, I've seen in some time. Instead, they are an overview of some brief thoughts of how amazing it is that in attempting to avoid "demonic" imagery, a player ended up playing something that would probably have freaked out the Patricia Pullings of the world far more than D&D if they ever happened upon it.

Given that the theme of this blog is gaming with kids, most of the future entries in this series will be about how to adapt Schwalb's extremely versatile system to "kid friendly" topics like Scooby Doo and Skylanders. Having said that, I had to write a post looking at how the Satanic Panic continues to influence game designers and gamers. 

I know that the Satanic Panic affected the way that I gamed for a time. It forced me to encounter new genres and styles of play. I still resent the stupidity of the critics of RPGs back in the day, but I can use a little motivated reasoning to find the silver lining of the clouds. Thanks to Robert J. Schwalb, some of that silver lining now includes "Super-Mega-Ultra-Satan."

Friday, January 22, 2016

Exciting News from the New TSR - The Publishers of Gygax Magazine

I recently received an email from the new TSR discussing their scheduled lineup of new products and it is a real doozy.

When I heard that a rag tag band of old school gamers and old school game company employees had acquired the trademark to the name TSR, I was a bit skeptical. This skepticism remained even after they announced the production of a new gaming magazine entitled Gygax Magazine. My skepticism was primarily rooted in the fear that the new company, which was clearly going to be an OSR (Old School Renaissance) inspired venture, would err too much on the side of D&D OSR and not be a celebration of the entirety of Old School Roleplaying games. My skepticism soon translated into enthusiasm when I received my first copy of Gygax Magazine. Where I had expected a magazine dedicated to various D&D clones, and would have enjoyed those articles as I am a fan of D&D retroclones, what I received was a magazine that included articles covering a wide variety of games and genre.

It was like reading Dragon Magazine during the period when Dragon was more than just a house organ. Gygax Magazine is more the Dragon that published "Crimefighters" than the magazine that dedicated itself to "all 2nd edition all the time." The magazine continued its strong mission of supporting multiple genres, even as the company has had to negotiate some legal obstacles and the loss of some key partners, but the end of the legal battles (and the loss of Luke an Ernie Gygax as partners) resulted in the company deciding to end future publication of Gygax Magazine.

These recent obstacles had me once again worried about the future of the company, but then I received an email about their projected lineup and my excitement has returned.

This year, TSR plans the release of three lines of products.

The first is a line of adventure modules designed for use with a variety of old school game systems. This line of adventures is called, fittingly for one which is supporting multiple systems, the Pantheon Series.

As you can see from the image, the Pantheon Series will include Fantasy (Multisystem), Science Fiction (Metamorphosis Alpha), Superheroes/WWII (Godlike), and Espionage (Top Secret).  The lineup of authors includes highly regarded designers from the early days of gaming and support for an interesting set of games. The first adventures in the series were originally published in Gygax Magazine, but future entries will be original to the series. I think that this is a bold move by the company and will test how much newer gamers are willing to support the more free wheeling support fostered in the early days of the hobby.

Next on the list of products is a more conservative, but equally anticipated, 5th edition D&D adventure series. The series opens with Trouble at IronGarde Watch by Frank Mentzer and James Carpio. Mentzer was the editor of the classic BECMI edition of Dungeons and Dragons and has a wonderful sense of what makes a great fantasy adventure.

TSR's next offering demonstrates their willingness to fully commit to being an rpg publisher. Code Name: ACRID HERALD is a brand new Espionage role playing game designed by Merle Rasmussen, the designer of the classic first edition of Top Secret for the original TSR. The game is in its early stages, and the title is only an internal playtesting title, but I look forward to seeing what wonders lie in store. When Top Secret was first published, role playing games were young and Espionage wasn't a widely accepted game setting. Modern gamers, and game play styles that are more story oriented, provide a richer environment for Espionage games. The current spy game market has some excellent entries, but there is room for a new player if the game hits the right sweet spots. I'm looking forward to what Rasmussen has in store.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Psst...I'm one of the Essayists in the Official Companion to the Munchkin Card Game

I've been vaguebooking about this for some time, but I finally get to announce that I am one of the authors in an upcoming Munchkin product. That's right, I've been given the chance to write an essay on what makes Munchkin such a great game and have been given the honor to work with James Lowder and to receive positive feedback from Steve Jackson himself.

Talk about an achievement unlocked. Working on this project was a dream come true and I cannot wait for you to read the essays that my fellow authors and I have put together for you. There are a number of great writers on the project, as you can see from the Table of Contents:

  • Foreword: “Why I Love to Dance in Pants Macabre” by Ed Greenwood
  • Introduction: “The Space Between the Cards” by James Lowder
  • “Munchkin by the Numbers” by Steve Jackson
  • “To Backstab or Not to Backstab: Game Theory and the Munchkin Dilemma” by Andrew Zimmerman Jones
  • “Madness in 168 Easy Steps” by Andrew Hackard
  • “Monty Haul and His Friends at Play” by David M. Ewalt
  • “Monster Grievances” by Jennifer Steen
  • “Screw You, Pretty Balloons: The Comedy of Munchkin” by Joseph Scrimshaw
  • “On with the Show: Confessions of a Munchkin Demo Pro” by Randy Scheunemann
  • “Munchkin as Monomyth” by Jaym Gates
  • “From Candy Land to Munchkin: The Evolution of a Young Gamer” by Dave Banks
  • “The Emperor of Fun: An Interview with Phil Reed” by Matt Forbeck
  • “How Playing Munchkin Made Me a Better Gamer” by Christian Lindke
  • “Flirting 101: Throwing the Dice in Munchkin and in Love” by Bonnie Burton
  • “The Charity Rule” by Colm Lundberg
  • “Munchkin: Hollywood” by Liam McIntyre
  • “My Favorite Munchkin” by John Kovalic
 The book will be available for purchase on February 23rd, but you might want to pre-order it from Amazon now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Deadlands: Ghostwalkers [Review] -- Does It Bring the Big Guns?

Unlike many genre fans, I have a great deal of respect for "media tie-in" fiction. I believe that some of the best science fiction and fantasy fiction has been the result of hard work by a media tie-in author. William King's Gotrek and Felix stories are wonderful Sword & Sorcery duo fiction, Diane Duane has written some wonderfully entertaining Spider-Man novels, and no list of praise for this sub-genre would be complete without mention of Paul S. Kemp's tales of Erevis Cale. These three authors merely scratch the surface of the high quality work that can be found in media tie-in fiction.

One of the things that most impresses me about well written media tie-in fiction is how an author can bring their own spark of originality to a world that has potentially been thoroughly explored by the media creators. Writing a novel tale within a world without being crushed by restrictions created by other creators, or without writing too far outside the box as to not be working within the shared world, takes a high level of skill. 

The media tie-in author is writing for two audiences: the existing fans of the setting and fans of the genre who may be unfamiliar with the television show, video game, or role playing game where the story takes place. The job of the author is to make fiction fans of the media fans and turn genre fans into fans of the underlying media. This is a difficult challenge.  Fans of a setting can be your harshest critics if they believe that you have written a story that violates the rules of the setting, even if the tale itself is creative and entertaining.  Even if the author manages to satisfy the fans of the setting/game, they also need to appeal to the genre fan in the hopes of making them fans of the underlying property. To put it in the crudest terms, media tie-in fiction are both a way to interact with existing fans of the media and are advertisements to future fans. It's a delicate balance between entertainment and advertisement.

One of my own personal favorite intellectual properties, and game settings, is the Weird West setting created by Shane Hensley (and friends) for the Deadlands role playing game. The game was originally published in the late 90s and has always had related fiction published for the game. I often re-read the "Dime Novels" that were written in the early days of the game. This year (2015) is the year that Deadlands has really exploded into the media tie-in market with comic books and novels being published for the setting. The novels are being published by Tor Books.  One of the largest, if not the largest, publisher of speculative fiction. 

The first Tor novel is entitled Deadlands: Ghostwalkers and was written by talented horror veteran Jonathan Maberry who has written the Joe Ledger and Pine Deep series of books. He's an excellent writer, but how well is he able to combine his own talents with the requirements that come with writing a media tie-in novel?

The Book

Ghostwalkers is the tale of Grey Torrence, a former Union soldier with a haunted past who now wanders the Weird West as he flees the ghosts of his former misdeeds. Torrence is a combination of John Wayne's character Col. John Marlowe in The Horse Soldiers and a Peckinpah badman with a dash of James West. Like Marlowe, he was caught behind enemy lines during the Civil War, but where Marlowe escaped triumphant Torrence's mission ended in failure. In Ghostwalkers, Torrence finds himself continually compelled to do the right thing even against overwhelming odds. He does this in part to atone for his past failings.

This reflexive heroism leads him into companionship with Thomas Looks Away of the Ogala Toyospaye in what could have been a simple Lone Ranger and Tonto tale. Maberry is too talented to fall into that trap and instead of giving us the Native American mystic, he gives us a Native American Mad Scientist more in the mold of Artemis Gordon than Tonto. It's a refreshing change and one that signals that the author might be giving us a couple more twists as well.

Torrence and Looks Away, two of the heroes of our tale, are caught in the middle of an apocalyptic time. What separates the Weird West from the Old West is that in 1863 a ritual opened the doors to the Happy Hunting Grounds and created a Hell on Earth where the dead rise from the grave and scientific innovation is fueled by a substance that seems to scream in pain when burned as a means to create power for Weird and impossible gadgets.

These heroes, and some additional companions, face off against the horrors of the Weird West. They fight the Walking Dead and resurrected Dinosaurs, but no opponent is as fearful as the greed and lust for power of their fellow man.

The Good

Maberry manages to introduce those unfamiliar with the Deadlands setting to the world in a seamless fashion.  By focusing the narrative on a character unfamiliar with most of the changes that have taken place in the world, he has a perfect cipher for our own experiences. Maberry also introduces the Weird West in small doses. He doesn't try to convey the entirety of the differences between this fictional West and our own. Instead, he lets us discover how the Los Angeles and California of this world differ from ours at a steady pace. We see the world unfold as the characters encounter it. It's good world building technique used to reveal existing information.

I was particularly impressed with how Maberry was able to show how the influence of the Reckoners, particularly Famine, affected the world in a way that only fans of the game would notice. Genre fans get a good story, but there was a nice easter egg for the media fan. Since the knowledge of the world is passed on by people who live in it, and since they would be unfamiliar with the Reckoners, it was demonstration of solid storytelling. Additionally, modeling some of the characters and narrative on Wild, Wild, West was also a good choice. I don't know if it was intentional or sub-conscious, but I would have loved to watch this book as episodes of that classic show.

The Bad

There were a couple of moments I was pulled out of the text. Given Maberry's use of "Harrowed" characters, read the book to find out what those are, I kept expecting to see Stone (an iconic Deadlands character) around every corner. That never happened, and the story is better for it, but I kept expecting it and was a barrier in my reading.

There were also a couple of sentences/phrases that pulled me out of the fiction. The first was when Maberry discussed Juniper trees early. He wrote, "The mingled blurs coalesced into a canopy of Juniper leaves..." which left me wondering if he had ever seen a Juniper. One wouldn't normally use the term "leaves" when describing them. It seemed more like he was describing Oaks than Junipers. That could just be me though.

The second sentence included the phrase "mound of sobbing frilly whites..." as a means of describing clothes that were still wet from a demon rain storm.Given that I read an advance copy, I hope this got corrected before the final version. Clothes tend to be sopping wet, though in Deadlands it wouldn't be impossible to find sobbing clothes.

As you can see, "the bad" in the tale is pretty minor. When you are resorting to nitpicking as your criticism, you have read a pretty entertaining piece of fiction.

The Ugly?

Aside from a sex scene that made sense narratively, but was still a little too "because HBO" as it seemed unnecessary as a demonstration of affection, I found it near impossible to put the book down once I started reading. Maberry's tale has wonderful pacing and the right combination of mystery, horror, and action to reflect the underlying intellectual property.

There were only a couple of moments where I could "hear the dice drop" in the background. Grey's heroism sure seems more like a Savage Worlds Hinderance than an actual character trait, but moments like this were rare. If you like Westerns and Zombies, you should love Maberry's work here. I know that I did.

It was an entertaining mash up of The Wild Wild West, John Ford, and Sam Peckinpah. I can think of no higher praise than that.
3.5/5 stars.Dea