Category Archives: Retro Gaming

Master of Roles, Revised

Hey, look! A new version of the vintage Rolemaster RPG is out, and they’ve released public playtest documents for the teeming masses to try out.

I’d say Rolemaster has certainly earned a new edition—the last serious rules upgrade was in the mid-90s (the Rolemaster Standard System); there was technically a further revised edition around the turn of the century, but it was mostly a re-organization of the rules, with no major rules changes. All of my Rolemaster gaming used the older 2nd edition; I picked up a few RMSS books but then 3rd edition D&D came out, boasting a heavy Rolemaster influence with a simpler and faster system, and that’s when I officially jumped off the Rolemaster train.

I haven’t kept up with Rolemaster much lately because, alas, there hasn’t been that much to keep up with—new releases have been scarce over the last five or more years and the Rolemaster community doesn’t have a large online presence these days. I’m very happy to see a new version in the works and have already downloaded the playtest files. That said, my interest is mostly fueled by nostalgia at this point; unless the complexity has been dialed down a good bit, Rolemaster would be a pretty hard sell for me and my current game group except as an occasional side game. (And dialing down the complexity might take the spark of life out of Rolemaster, so I don’t know if I really want that.) But you never know.

(And it’s no fault of Rolemaster itself, but without the late Angus McBride‘s glorious illustrations, it just doesn’t feel quite the same.)

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The dungeon mapper’s lament

In the olden days, mapping a dungeon meant breaking out a stack of graph paper and painstakingly documenting each 10×10′ block. This was true both for paper-and-pencil Dungeons and Dragons games and for early computer RPGs—today most computer games provide in-game maps that track your exploration progress, but back in the First Age you had to play Bard’s Tale with a mapping pencil in hand.

Enter Legend of Grimrock, a throwback computer RPG released this year. Reproducing as it does the gameplay of early computer dungeon crawls, it gives you the option of an “old school” game mode, in which the automatic mapper is disabled and you’re forced to map out your progress on your own.

I couldn’t resist. I’m old-school, right? I’m hardcore. I broke out the graph paper. And I started mapping.

Now, as any old-timer knows, choosing where on the page to start your map is important and tricky. You don’t know which direction the dungeon’s going to extend. So, because my first glimpse of Dungeon Level 1 suggested that it seemed to be oriented in a northerly direction, I started my map in the bottom-center of my sheet of graph paper.

It went well for a few minutes. Then, what’s this? Dangit, the dungeon’s turned east and is headed straight toward the edge of the graph paper sheet.

The star in the large chamber is my starting location.

Sigh. OK, I can deal with this. I’m a seasoned veteran. If the dungeon’s headed east, I’ll skip over to the west side of the page and continue my map from there. It’s not like the dungeon is going to… going to turn back around and head west. NOOOOOOO!

Exactly five squares into this new map section, I got a bad feeling about it.

Now there’s only one place on the page to which I can move the map, since I’ve used the bottom third of the page for notes. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the worst dungeon map ever created?

At least this should get me out of party mapping duty in all future D&D games.

I’ve got to believe that level 2 is going to go better than this.

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This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…

Also, your character could die during character generation. Or so I am told.

As fortune would have it, I’ve read a number of (non-Dungeons & Dragons) novels lately that have contained clever references to D&D. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is chock full of them. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians has a good number as well. Nerd references are the cool thing these days. But The Magician King, the sequel to The Magicians, has officially one-upped it with an even more nerdy RPG reference in the name of an online mental-health support group one of the protagonists joins:

…the support group really was pretty dandy. It was something special. It was founded by a woman who’d worked successively at Apple, and then Microsoft, and then Google…. before she rolled neurochemical snake eyes and a bout of clinical depression knocked her out of the sky…. So she retired early and started Free Trader Beowulf.

Free Trader Beowulf—you had to be at least forty and a recovering pen-and-paper role-playing-gamer to get the reference, but it was apt. Google it.

It would’ve been even better if Grossman had not let on that it was an RPG reference, so that people like me could feel all superior for noticing it. It’s a shout-out to Traveller, a classic sci-fi RPG first published in the 70s. (It’s still around.)

If D&D references have become commonplace, then a Traveller reference is at least kicking it up a notch. Mark my words, next year it’s going to be Tékumel and Tunnels and Trolls references. You read it here first!

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Why Are Gary Gygax’s D&D Modules Still Unavailable?

The cover of "Keep on the Borderlands," perhaps the most famous and influential roleplaying adventure ever published.

Next month, Wizards of the Coast is reprinting the 1st edition AD&D core rulebooks, with some of the proceeds to benefit the Gygax Memorial Fund. (And if you missed it, yesterday was the fourth anniversary of Gygax’s death.)

I’m really glad they’re bringing back, even if just for a limited print run, some vintage D&D books. But as cool as that is, it also reminds me how crazy it is that almost all of Gary Gygax’s most famous and influential work is out of print. Long out of print.

In addition to the assorted early edition D&D rulebooks, Gygax authored some of the most influential, fondly-remembered, imaginative adventures and campaigns: The Keep on the Borderlands, Tomb of Horrors, The Temple of Elemental Evil, the “Against the Giants” trilogy, and oh, about a bazillion others.

All of those are gathering figurative dust in Wizards of the Coast’s basement someplace, instead of being available to gamers or civilians who want to delve into the history of the roleplaying hobby. From a gaming perspective, the craziness of keeping the hobby’s greatest hits out of circulation for decades is obvious. And from a non-gaming perspective, it’s odd that, given Gygax’s influence on pop culture and the attention his death received by mainstream news outlets, none of his defining works are available. As anyone who’s read or played those old modules will tell you, Gygax’s voice and writing style are incredibly unique; it was in these adventures and campaign modules that his quirks as a creator and visionary were truly apparent. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there’s real literary value in keeping his early D&D works available.

More Gygaxian awesomeness in "The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth."

Low-quality scans of most of these works were available as (legally purchasable) PDFs for a while, but were yanked offline by Wizards of the Coast a few years back for reasons that, uh, I suppose made sense to somebody. And you can grab a lot of them used from the usual suspects online, but prices for some of them have skyrocketed. (And I have to imagine that most Gygax modules still out there for sale are tattered, bescribbled, Mountain Dew-stained relics you’d be afraid to actually open, lest they crumble into Cheeto-flecked dust.)

The limited reprint of the AD&D rulebooks is a promising sign, as are the promises that the upcoming 5th edition of D&D will somehow bridge gaps between the various editions of the game. And maybe if the AD&D reprints sell well, we’ll see an anthology of Gygax’s greatest adventure modules follow. With the rising popularity of ebooks and the maturation of print-on-demand technology, there are many ways a creative publisher (I’m assuming it’s Wizards of the Coast, but Gygax Games might or might not have some say in the matter) could make Gygax’s work available to modern readers without a massive financial commitment. Here’s hoping.

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The voice behind the filing cabinet

Here’s a fascinating series of posts documenting the experience of playing D&D with Mike Mornard, AKA “Old Geezer,” who himself once played at Gary Gygax’s game table in the earliest days of D&D. There are all sorts of interesting anecdotes about how Gygax played D&D. For example, here’s a story that sounds almost too awesome to be true:

Mike gave a fascinating account of a typical early D&D game, with a peculiar detail that I’d never heard before. Gary never used maps or minis: maps and minis were Dave Arneson’s thing. Gary ran games in his office, which was provided with chairs, a couch, and file cabinets. While playing, Gary would open the drawers of the file cabinet and sit behind them so that the players COULD NOT SEE HIM. They only experienced the Dungeon Master as a disembodied voice.

It’s too perfect—the idea of playing D&D while the gamemaster hunches unseen behind a filing cabinet making his pronouncements like a low-budget Wizard of Oz. The account goes on to describe such experiences as tense and almost fearful for the players:

During games, cross-talk was discouraged: the party caller did most of the talking, and other players only talked if they had something to contribute. If the players chattered too much, they’d miss what the Disembodied Voice was saying, and that would be, as Mike put it, “suicide”. “You could feel the tension in the room,” he added.

When Wizards of the Coast reprints the original AD&D rulebooks this April, I’m hoping to run an old-school game or two to celebrate. But I don’t think I’m willing to haul the filing cabinet into the gameroom just so I can hide behind it while GMing, as tempting as it is.

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F.E.A.R. of a flashlight

Been a while, eh? I bet you’re interested in what video games I’ve been playing. Well, you’ve talked me into it.

In my spare time, I’ve been playing through an old—and it pains me to use that adjective to describe a game released in 2005, which seems like it was just yesterday—first-person shooter called F.E.A.R. (with the periods; it’s an abbreviation for something). F.E.A.R. combines the venerable first-person shooter genre with the J-horror “scary long-haired girl” genre. So it’s like The Grudge, if Sarah Michelle Gellar had an AR-15 and was being constantly attacked by evil clone troopers.

It could be worse. You could be working for N.E.R.V.O.U.S.

It’s a neat game; it’s kinda scary, and the gun battles are fun in a way that I hope real-life gun battles are not. But one thing really stands out as meriting comment: the Flashlight.

You see, much of the game takes place in creepy, poorly-lit environments from which scary stuff is frequently jumping out at you. In some areas the lighting is so dim (or non-existent) that you cannot see at all. Fortunately, the game has a solution: you have been equipped with a Flashlight.

But not just any flashlight. You see, your flashlight has 20 seconds of battery life before it switches off and must be recharged, a process that takes about 5 seconds. So travelling through dark areas is a matter of racing forward while your flashlight battery drains, then standing still for a few seconds while it recharges; at which point you switch it back on and move forward for 20 more seconds.

One understands the design motive behind this gameplay device. To make sure you spend at least some of the game in the scary dark, illumination is treated as a somewhat limited resource. Doom 3, which came out a few years before F.E.A.R. and relied on a similarly shadowy environment to creep you out, did something similar and was roundly mocked for its solution: you can have your flashlight out, or you could have a weapon out, but not both at the same time. I didn’t mind this tradeoff too much as it forced some tough choices every now and then (and really, I’m OK with not being able to wield a plasma cannon in one hand a flashlight in the other); but it’s hard to argue against the typical gamer complaints: if you’re such a bad-ass space marine, why don’t you just duct-tape the flashlight to the barrel of your gun? Or hold it in your teeth like they do in Hollywood movies? Or tie it to your helmet?

Why, indeed. F.E.A.R.‘s attempt to make turning on your flashlight a tactical dilemma is even worse, though. You’re a high-tech commando employed by some awesome secret agency, and you can’t get a flashlight that lasts more than 20 seconds? That is the worst flashlight ever. Let’s be honest: my 4-year-old daughter has a plastic flashlight shaped like a bee that diffuses its quickening ray from the “bee’s” rump, and it’s a more practical flashlight than the one they give you in F.E.A.R.

Pre-order F.E.A.R. 4 from Gamestop and get the limited edition KR-31 "Killer Bee" flashlight with which you can illuminate all your foes.

It’s an interesting game design problem, though. Like most FPS games, F.E.A.R. proudly boasts an extremely detailed and realistic environment. Buildings look and are laid out like real-life buildings. Your guns behave in a way that your typical basement-dwelling game nerd would consider realistic. Bullets knock nicely detailed chunks of concrete out of walls and shatter windows; rooms fill with blinding gunsmoke after lengthy gun battles. All of the graphics and combat mechanics work overtime to be as life-like and immersive as possible.

Yet it’s also fun to force the player travel through scary areas without reliable illumination. And so in the specific case of your flashlight, the game chucks immersion to the wind and gives you a wonky lightstick that has to be “recharged” every few seconds, because that’s more fun.

You can have realistic and immersive, or you can have gamey and fun; but when both are present in the same game, it’s a big distraction.

I’m reminded of an excellent essay on the lasting appeal of the original Doom, which had infinitely less believable environments but which turned that into a virtue:

While some of Doom’s levels have a very thin fiction via their title (eg “Hangar”) and general texturing theme, if you actually explore them you find they only resemble real locations in the loosest sense possible. This is precisely what allowed Doom’s level design to present a wide variety of interesting tactical setups. Level designers didn’t have to worry about whether a change made something look less like a hangar or a barracks, just whether it was better for gameplay. This was especially critical for a style of game that was just finding its feet in 1993.

As the march of technology has allowed ever-higher graphical fidelity, virtually every FPS since Doom has attempted greater and greater representationalism with its environments. While games like System Shock began to show that a real sense of place can be a huge draw in itself, designers of such games will always have to manage the tension between compelling fiction and optimal function, unless you are willing to go all out and have the kind of weird, abstract spaces Doom has. I would love to see more modern games break with this conventional wisdom and see where it leads, if only in an indie or experimental context.

F.E.A.R. is fun and elaborately crafted. But so was Doom, and Doom didn’t feel obliged to painstakingly recreate entire office blocks. Doom threw together a minotaur maze, slapped blinking lights on the walls, and called the level “Nuclear Plant.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, my flashlight is fully recharged and I’ve got to get back to the shooting.

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“We’ll have to destroy them ship-to-ship. Get the crews to their fighters.”

I like library used-book shops, because you never know what you’ll find in them. Usually they’re little more than a closet full of James Patterson novels selling for $.25 each. But the library shop in my parents’ hometown is a good one where my family has made many an unusual discovery over the years.

That trend continued over the holidays; while visiting my parents, we stopped by the library shop and I picked up these two treasures (still shrinkwrapped) for a buck apiece:

Those are two of the most fondly-remembered space simulators in videogame history: X-Wing and TIE Fighter. They came out during the heyday of LucasFilm’s (now LucasArts) game development, before they decided to stop making interesting games and make only mediocre Star Wars titles.

X-Wing and TIE Fighter were, obviously, Star Wars titles, but they weren’t mediocre. Their roots lie in Lawrence Holland’s World War 2 flight simulators, one of which (Their Finest Hour) absorbed many an evening on my Amiga. (Their Finest Hour even came with a 200-page history of the Battle of Britain that I used as the primary source for a high school paper. Hey, it was better than anything in the school library….)

There are plenty of space simulators out there today, but they seem to have slid into a niche below the radar of most gamers. X-Wing and TIE Fighter hearken back to bygone days when, for a glorious stretch of years starting with Wing Commander and (probably) ending with Freespace 2, space combat simulators were the kings of gaming.

So I hope to relive those halcyon days with these two gems. That is, assuming I can find a computer with a floppy disk drive:

What about you? Were you gaming during the Great Space/Flight Simulator glory days? What ships did you pilot to victory?

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XP for death and failure; and other interesting uses for Experience Points

I recently came across an interesting post at Gothridge Manor about one of AD&D’s weirder rules: experience for death. The 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide rules that a character who dies and is subsequently brought back to life earns 1000 experience points (XP).

In old-school D&D, you generally got XP for defeating monsters and gaining treasure, with a few interesting exceptions like the above. These days, many games use a fairly abstract system of awarding XP wherein characters are awarded a set amount of XP for a combination of in-game success and good roleplaying.

The cover of the 1989 Rolemaster boxed set.

That’s a fine way to do it. But the “experience for death” rule reminds me of the quirkier and much more ambitious method of awarding XP found in the pages of the Rolemaster RPG. Rolemaster, itself pitched as a more “realistic” take on fantasy adventuring than its contemporary AD&D, awards XP for extremely specific individual in-game actions.

For instance, in classic Rolemaster (2nd edition, and perhaps in other editions too), your character gains experience not just for defeating an enemy, but for each point of damage dealt to an enemy. And going beyond that, you gain experience for each critical hit (i.e., severe wound) you inflict. In fact, you get XP for each wound inflicted on you. (And yes, you get experience for dying and then coming back to life.) Outside of combat, you get XP for every mile your character travels and for every impressive physical maneuver your character pulls off. There are specific XP awards for casting spells and even for coming up with good ideas.

The paperwork is oppressive; even my nerdy junior-high gaming group, always eager to squeeze as much XP out of a gaming session as possible, usually failed to diligently record every single blow landed in combat for later XP calculation. These days I’m lucky if I remember approximately how many orcs the characters beat down in the course of an evening’s game; I can’t imagine filling out Rolemaster’s intimidating experience tracking chart, faithfully marking down the severity of each critical wound delivered in the course of a routine fight.

But this hyper-detailed system has its charms, and there are some neat ideas to be extracted from it even if you recoil from the detail:

  • Experience for failure. It might seem odd at first that your character would earn experience for being struck or seriously wounded in combat. If your character is getting slapped around in a fight, isn’t he “losing”? Perhaps, but consider the educational power of failure in life. In a combat situation, you might fall for a feint or sneaky manuver once, but assuming you survive said failure, you’re highly unlikely to fall for it again. You’ve learned a lesson you’ll carry with you into future combat situations.
  • Decreased experience for familiar accomplishments. Another neat little twist in Rolemaster is that your XP earned for accomplishing something—say, defeating a goblin—is multiplied by a different value depending on how many times you’ve accomplished the task in the past. If this is your first goblin kill, you get five times the normal XP for pulling it off. After you’ve taken out a few of the green nuisances, that multiplier value goes down; you’ve done this enough that you’re not learning as much from it. And when you reach the point where you can singlehandedly plow through an ocean of the luckless beasts, you’ve probably got the goblin-whomping down to a science and are getting 1/2 of its normal XP value.

All in all, I’m fine with the more abstracted system of awarding XP. D&D 4e’s method of assigning experience points to the entire group based on the difficulty of a particular challenge is probably close to my ideal. But I do sometimes miss the very detailed method, and the slightly unconventional uses of XP it allows.

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The walls of this 10×10 chamber are adorned with…

When my wife and I finally made the choice to became real Americans (i.e. go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to buy a house), one of my requirements was that said house have some sort of subterranean chamber which I could convert into a basement game room. One year later, my game lair is finally ready.

Of course, no game room is complete without cheesy posters adorning the walls. No longer being 13, I can’t get away with supermodel pinups or Megadeth posters. But this is a perfect excuse to dig out those vintage game posters I’ve been hauling with me around the country for the last two decades. After a few trips to Hobby Lobby to pick up some cheap poster frames, here’s what’s hanging on the walls of my game room. (I apologize for the flash glare in some of these… if my game room had adequate lighting, it would not be authentic.)

First up is a pair of (unfortunately fairly weathered) Battletech Mech schematics, bought way back in the early days of FASA:


The 85-ton BLG-1G Battlemaster. Awww yeah.


The infamous Warhammer, complete with two PPCs and a cheesecake illustration of Natasha 'Black Widow' Kerensky in the bottom right (for scale purposes, of course).

On the opposite wall, découpaged to an oh-so-classy piece of wood, is the map that came with one of my favorite Infocom games, Beyond Zork:

Quendor map

I love this map, although I could do without the dozen compass roses pasted across it.

And now back to Battletech. The only Commodore 64 game I played as much as Wasteland was Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception. It was my introduction to Battletech, and ever since, the poster that came with it remains the iconic Battletech image in my mind:

Crescent Hawk

A tiny Locust mech faces off against... what is that, a Marauder? That's not very fair, but it looks awesome.

Moving along, we have (surprise) another Infocom poster, this one of one of their least-known games: Quarterstaff: The Tomb of Setmoth. It was a quirky RPG/text-adventure hybrid (and only available on the Mac, strangely); but I really enjoyed it back in high school.


Am I the only person who played and enjoyed this game?

No game collection in the late 80s/early 90s was complete without at least one SSI Gold Box AD&D game. Here was mine:

Champions of Krynn

Champions of Krynn, one of many SSI Gold Box classics.

The next item is a change of pace: a poster that came with one of my favorite NES games, Dragon Warrior. This game was surpassed not long after its release by Final Fantasy I, but was a great deal of fun. And it has one of the most annoying/awesome catchy soundtracks of any NES-era game.

Dragon Warrior

One of the first great JRPGs on the NES.

And last but not least, I devoted most of an entire wall to one of the most iconic locations in D&D: Undermountain, the megadungeon. I framed three of the four maps that came in the 2e Undermountain boxed set:

Undermountain maps

There are a LOT of places to die in Undermountain.

So that’s what’s hanging on the walls of my basement game lair. I like to think of it as inspirational artwork. And believe it or not, there’s a stack of maps and posters that I’ll have to put back in storage because there wasn’t room to frame them too….

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