Category Archives: Roleplaying

More human than human

Hey, ‘net punk! Look what some clever console cowboy has revealed on the inter-tron today:

OK, so it’s just a video game. But this is a kind of a big deal if you’re into tabletop roleplaying games, because this is a video game based on Mike Pondsmith’s venerable Cyberpunk 2013 (later Cyberpunk 2020, later Cyberpunk 203X) roleplaying game setting.

And that’s interesting for a number of reasons. First, the Cyberpunk RPG is an oldie, firmly planted in the mirrorshades era of the cyberpunk genre; the kind of cyberpunk where you brush aside your ’80s bangs and “jack in” to a Gibsonesque (and by “Gibsonesque” I mean “ripped straight out of Neuromancer“) proto-internet and talk sneeringly about “meatbags.” There are “fresher” cyber-themed RPGs out there (Eclipse Phase, Shadowrun, Transhuman Space) that might be thought to offer a nicely updated cyberpunkish basis for a modern game.

Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk hasn’t been much in the public eye for years. The last time it was the focus of any attention, its most recent edition was being dragged over the coals for using what can only be described as “doll art” to illustrate its rulebook:

Let’s just say that it didn’t emerge from those discussions with a lot of dignity intact.

But I don’t mean to mock. (Let me go on record as believing that the “doll art” thing contains a seed of genius, but was badly executed.) This new Cyberpunk video game is a reminder that there is a long history of tabletop RPGs—even obscure and mostly defunct ones like Cyberpunk—that are ripe for reinvention and re-exploration, in video games or other media. That’s exciting.

So let me offer a few comments on the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer above.

  • The “2077” is presumably a reference to the year in which the game is set. Interesting; I believe that Shadowrun, the most prominent cyberpunk RPG still in print, is also currently set in the 2070s. I guess that “50-60 years from now” is about what seems right for a setting that needs to have advanced significantly beyond current technology levels, but not so far that it isn’t recognizeable and relatable.
  • This game follows on the very popular cyberpunk video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Is vintage cyberpunk making a comeback?
  • The technical quality of this trailer—the animation style, the music, everything—points to a pretty spectacular end-product.
  • The lady in this trailer isn’t dressed very appropriately for a dangerous nighttime urban dystopian environment; but then again, she’s got the retractable arm-scythes, so she can wear what she wants. The future is cheesecake.
  • I’ll expand on that a bit. The association of eroticism with violence in entertainment media, such as this video game trailer, makes me uncomfortable, but I’ll concede that I’m probably a few decades too late to raise that particular concern (and it’s been a staple of cyberpunk since Ghost in the Shell and probably earlier). I will say: the cyberpunk genre is about a future defined by out-of-control marketing of all types (including sexual) and the augmentation of the human body, so in theory there are some interesting, and possibly even prescient, points to be made about violence, sexuality, and the ultimate victory of style over substance. But I’m not holding my breath that this video game is where we’ll see that handled with insight.

Well, we’ll see where this all winds up. But we can be sure it won’t top this artifact from the glory days of cyberpunk gaming:

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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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An Illustrated Compendium of Monsters (for Four-Year-Olds)

Like every father of a four-year-old daughter, I’m called upon nightly to tell her bedtime stories. My daughter Thessaly insists that each night’s story be something she hasn’t heard before, so for years now I’ve been scrambling to come up with interesting tales.

The 1st edition AD&D Monster Manual.

Fortunately for me, the stories she wants to hear follow the same general pattern: a villain or monster shows up, threatening somebody or sometimes stealing a piece of treasure; the rightful authorities (usually Mommy and Daddy) attempt to fight the bad guy but get in over their heads and have to call in backup, in the person of Thessaly the Hero. (Thessaly the Hero is my daughter plus magic powers, serving here as a rather blatant Mary Sue character.) Thessaly then tricks, subdues, or imprisons the villain using cleverness or occasionally a magic power.

I realized early on that it was the villain of each story that really enchanted Thessaly. Whenever a bad guy would appear in the story, she wanted to know all about it: what did it look like, where did it live, what powers did it have, why was it acting so villainous. And at some point I realized that I could tap my Dungeons & Dragons obsession to make these stories more fun. So for the last few months, I’ve been using creatures from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual as the foes in these nightly stories.

It’s worked out well, because the Monster Manual is full of bizarre and imaginative beasts. Here are some that have appeared in the nightly stories, with notes on how my daughter reacted:

Tarrasque: One night Thessaly insisted that the story’s villain be the biggest, strongest, scariest monster available, and in D&D, there’s one monster that truly meets that description: the tarrasque, a gargantuan apocalyptic terror. Despite its fearsomeness, Thessaly the Hero regularly exploits its lack of dexterity to defeat it. For whatever reason, the tarrasque is one of her favorites, and I regularly have to invent ways to bring it back for repeat appearances.

Yes, it’s the owlbear.

Owlbear: I expected this one to be a huge hit, because it’s, you know, a bear with the head of an owl. That has “kids will love it” written all over it, right? But for whatever reason, the owlbear was a complete dud, and Thessaly’s never requested its return. Admittedly, it was difficult to come up with a compelling villainous motive for a giant owl-headed bear beyond general ornery-ness.

Gelatinous Cube: This mobile block of slime is an iconic D&D monster, and Thessaly loved it. She was so taken by the gelatinous cube, in fact, that she recruited it as a friend and it has made several guest appearances now as Thessaly the Hero’s sidekick.

Cockatrice: I don’t even remember what this one is, except that it’s, like, a rooster combined with some other type of creature. My lack of enthusiasm for this unfortunate beast was obvious and it hasn’t been missed since Thessaly the Hero jailed it a month or so ago.


Beholder: A floating mouth with a dozen eyestalks—what’s not to love? The beholder was popular for several stories due to the increasingly tricky methods Thessaly the Hero had to employ to evade its gaze.

Blackbeard: OK, Blackbeard’s not a D&D monster, but he should be. He’s a definite Thessaly favorite and has escaped from prison nearly as many times as the tarrasque has. Blackbeard’s appearance on the scene has allowed me to expand the scope of the nightly stories to include oceanic scenarios.

Leviathan: I’m not sure if there’s a leviathan in D&D lore, but I needed an aquatic monster to follow up on the popularity of Blackbeard, and so was born the leviathan, watery sibling of the tarrasque. Frequently teams up with the tarrasque to menace society.

Yes, I know Acererak is technically a demi-lich, not a lich. I’m trying to keep things simple for my daughter until the day she grows up and learns the differences between types of undead wizard.

Acererak the Lich: This was an attempt to introduce a wizardly villain into the stories. I described him as a “skeleton wizard,” which prompted twenty minutes of uncomfortable questions about how a skeleton could still be alive, what happens to people’s skin when they die, will deceased pets return as ambulatory skeletons, etc. Once I got through the existential grilling, I was able to establish Acererak (originally from Tomb of Horrors) as a scheming wizard who can usually be tricked into falling into his own traps.

Cribbing bad guys from the Monster Manual has made me realize anew just how creative and entertaining many of the Monster Manual entries are; watching my daughter smile at the mental picture of a beholder or an umber hulk reminds me of what it was like to first flip through the pages of the AD&D Monster Manual as a kid.

With the variety of creatures in the Monster Manual—and the sheer number of monster books published over the years—I’m hoping this will last me until Thessaly tires of the format. And at this rate, I can tell several years’ worth of stories before I have to resort to incorporating the flumph….

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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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One man’s trash is another man’s campaign notes: the archaeology of used games

I never visit a used bookstore without checking its science fiction/fantasy section for used board or roleplaying games. If you’ve ever come across an amazing find in a neglected, dust-covered stack of old games at a used bookstore, you’ll agree that previously-owned games are much more fun to buy than brand-new shiny ones.

There’s something satisfying about reading and playing a game that somebody else has enjoyed. Flipping through a rulebook filled with somebody else’s signature, gameplay notes, or character sheets, you wonder: Why did they buy this game? What did they do with it? Did it entertain a group of friends for years, creating memories that they all recall fondly to this day? Or was it played once and set on the shelf to gather dust?

The used games on my bookshelf are filled with interesting artifacts of their previous owners. One of my first roleplaying purchases was previously owned—I bought the 2nd edition AD&D rulebooks from somebody who had upgraded from 1st edition but then decided that he hated the changes between editions. (He ranted as he sold me the books that the new edition was the death knell of D&D—an argument that’s trotted out to this day everytime a new D&D edition is released.)

All throughout the Player’s Handbook, whenever he came across a difficult vocabulary word, he penned in its definition above it:

Gary Gygax was the best thing to happen to my teenage vocabulary and reading comprehension.

Used boxed games are often a treasure trove of insight into their former owners. I have quite a few filled with custom character sheets and campaign notes. Here’s an example of such a character sheet from my used copy of Twilight 2000:

Meet Alexander Kaliber, no doubt a carefully balanced and realistic character. Check out that armament!

Paper-clipped to that character sheet were ten pages photocopied from a book about modern (in the 1980s) chemical warfare. I hope that was just in-game research.

You can also get a sense of how people prepared for their games. Several of my old D&D adventure modules contain map notes scribbled in by devious gamemasters. My tattered copy of The Great Old Ones for Call of Cthulhu is filled with highlighting—presumably the GM needed some help remembering important game details:

Seriously, the entire chapter is highlighted this heavily. It's headache-inducing.

And occasionally, you find something just bizarre in an old game. Last weekend, my wife treated me to a trip to the local used bookstore, where for a Father’s Day present I picked up a banged-up but mostly complete copy of the wargame 2nd Fleet. 2nd Fleet is a complicated, realistic emulation of NATO-Soviet naval warfare in the North Atlantic. So what did I find folded up and tucked guiltily into the rulebook?

Why--what were you expecting to find hidden in the rulebook for a highly-complex historical simulation?

I feel a strange compulsion to leave that keep that lurid sketch in there—at this point, it’s almost part of the game.

I can only hope that when I sell off my games, I leave a few gems hidden away in them for future gamers to discover… and feel uncomfortable about.

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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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Stormbringer is mine!

Elric poses with his soul-draining sword Stormbringer.

I had the chance to catch lunch with Ed earlier this week, and he was kind enough to pass an item from his game library to me: Stormbringer, the roleplaying game based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné novels. I’m really glad to get my hands on it; Stormbringer is one of those classic RPGs of which everyone speaks highly, but which I’ve never seen actually played. (But somebody must be playing it, as it’s in its sixth edition or thereabouts.)

In that sense, the RPG is not unlike Moorcock’s Elric novels: influential, well regarded, and yet strangely obscure. Although you might find a few Elric short story collections at the bookstore, the main Elric series that established the titular character as a pulp fantasy archetype seems to be weirdly out of print. If there’s any series screaming to be reprinted as an anthology, it’s the original Elric tales.

My own introduction to Moorcock and his angsty antihero came a few years ago when Elric of Melniboné turned up on my reading group’s list. I have since wondered how my youthful appreciation of the fantasy genre might have been different if I had gotten hooked on Moorcock instead of Tolkien 25 years ago. It’s too late now, of course; I was a Tolkien fanatic before I made it out of sixth grade.

And anyway, given my Tolkien partisanship, it’s probably just as well that I was blissfully unaware of Moorcock’s famous whinefest about Tolkien. (I like The Cimmerian’s rebuttal myself.)

But that aside, the first Elric novel is certainly worth tracking down and reading if you enjoy dark, morally edgy fantasy filled with strange and intriguing people, places, and gods. It’s sharply written and evocative, although angst-ridden Elric himself is probably one of those protagonists you either wholeheartedly love or hate from the moment you first meet him.

I hope to dig through the RPG in detail in the near future; but my initial take is that it’s an impressive piece of work.

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Making Man vs. Nature work in RPGs; or, nobody ever dies of scurvy in Dungeons and Dragons

Percy Fawcett went into the Amazon one last time, but he didn't come back.

In the last few months, I’ve read two riveting books about humanity’s drive to survive (and thus “conquer”) the most inhospitable environments on the planet. First up was The Lost City of Z, a historical account of the explorer Percy Fawcett‘s expeditions into the Amazon. The second was Dan Simmon’s The Terror, a fictionalized (complete with supernatural elements) account of the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage.

I thoroughly enjoyed both books, different as they are, and found myself utterly engrossed in the almost impossibly difficult struggles to survive in environments where man was clearly not meant to tread. In both cases, the natural environment is so inimical to human life that it is perceived by the survivors/victims as possessing an active, malevolent desire to destroy them.

It makes for gripping reading. But being a gamer, it also made me wonder why Man vs. Nature struggles, so compelling to read as narratives, are so rare in roleplaying games.

My instinctive reaction to a typical Man vs. Nature conflict as a roleplaying episode is that it would be rather boring, although I’m not immediately sure why that is. There is nothing about game rules that would stop you from putting together a survival scenario like the ones described in the two books above. Consider the roleplaying actions a sea-based arctic survival scenario would involve:

  • Successfully navigate your ship through icy waters and avoid getting lost or trapped in the ice.
  • Send expeditions out to hunt for food, often hunting dangerous animals (think polar bears).
  • Avoid scurvy and disease.
  • Keep party morale up and put down mutinees as needed.
  • Jury-rig shelter and equipment to stay alive.
  • Repair continual damage inflicted on your ship by the environment.
  • Avoid going mad yourself.

Trust me, getting eaten by a troll is a much better fate than scurvy.

Each of those could be broken down into discrete, accomplishable roleplaying activities; most games have skills and rule systems that would accomodate these activities. So why don’t more games feature environmental survival as the core challenge? Why doesn’t that sound more fun?

In most RPGs I’ve played, weather, environmental danger, and survival are abstracted into a few modifiers or die rolls done on the side—and usually just to find out if you’ll suffer any combat penalties from starvation or snowy terrain. Or else the challenge of survival is represented by a handful of “environmental challenges” that you overcome once and then get on with the scenario’s other, more interesting challenges. The handful of games I’ve played that featured straight environmental challenges (like the iceberg-scaling in “The Trail of Tsathoggua” for Call of Cthulhu) were actually kind of boring. The players rolled dice, occasionally took damage or suffered a penalty when they failed a roll, and then we got on with more interesting stuff. There was neither much tension in the challenge nor a meaningful sense of accomplishment upon overcoming it.

Have you ever run a game that featured explicit environmental challenges that really worked? Have you ever made the challenge of simply surviving something that was as tense and entertaining as an epic battle or other more traditional roleplaying challenge? How did you do it?

Note: for a related discussion, see Justin Achilli’s thoughts on the concept of exploration in games. I think a big part of a successful exploration-based game would be getting the “survival” part down solid, since part of the historical allure of exploration is the challenge of surviving in the strange new environment you’re exploring. And I think it’s telling that genuine exploration and environmental survival aren’t prominent in most published RPGs.

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Behind the scenes of Planescape: Torment

Via Gnome’s Lair, a great interview with Chris Avellone on Planescape: Torment. Lots of interesting tidbits here, although if you haven’t yet played through the game, there are some spoilers:


Well worth reading in conjunction with this interview is Avellone’s original vision document for PS:T (massive spoiler warning this time). It’s interesting to compare the vision document to the finished game.

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