Category Archives: Roleplaying

Cool gaming finds #2: Space Master extravaganza!

My last post recounted one of my favorite used-game-store discoveries. Here’s another one, which differs from the last story in that it involves a game I might actually play someday.

Not long ago, I was making a rare visit to a comic store in a town I don’t often travel to—it’s about an hour’s drive from home. They had a big table stacked high with used games, all priced at a few dollars. I immediately spotted this little gem:

Space Master 2nd edition boxed set

That’s the 2nd edition, boxed set of Iron Crown’s Space Master roleplaying game. I’m a sucker for anything from the heyday of Rolemaster, so I snatched it up for $5 without thinking and raced home. The box was bound up with rubber bands and I was in a hurry, so even though the box seemed really heavy, I didn’t give it much thought.

When I got home, I opened the box and discovered why the box had felt so heavy. Here’s what spilled out:

What I found in my Space Master boxed set

That’s the Space Master rules, all right… and a whole pile of adventures and modules published for it. In fact, I’d say that’s a sizable percentage of the entire product line.

I think I’m pretty set as far as Space Master goes!

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Unexpected gaming finds: a journey into the dark heart of Cyborg Commando

There are few things more fun than browsing through a big used game collection at a hobby store—you never know what you’re going to find.

There’s a comic store near my house that has a selection of used games. I usually don’t pay it too much attention when I visit the store, since I’ve combed through the used section in the past and already snatched up the stuff that interests me. But for the last year or two, I’ve been tempted by, of all things… (drum roll, please) this:

Cyborg Commando boxed set

That is, of course, a copy of Cyborg Commando, a Gary Gygax creation and one of the worst games ever published, if internet scuttlebutt is to be believed. Every few months I would stop by this store, see that slightly battered game box on the shelf (for just a few measly bucks!), and after a fierce internal debate, I’d successfully make my saving throw vs. Buy More Games I’ll Probably Never Play.

But recently, in a moment of weakness, I decided that I just had to have this artifact of gaming history. It’s by Gary Gygax, for crying out loud! How bad can it possibly be? (Pretty bad, actually; but that’s a story for another day.)

So I picked it up, trundled home with my prize, and retreated into the basement, after a brief exchange with my wife:

Me: I stopped by the comic store and picked up this game!
Wife: Cool—what is it?
Me (excitedly): It’s called Cyborg Commando. It’s widely considered one of the worst roleplaying games ever published!

Safely downstairs, I prised open the box. The old-papery smell of a dusty TSR-era boxed set filled the air:

Inside the Cyborg Commando boxed set.

Two rulebooks, some sort of short adventure-looking booklet, and some dice. A little on the meager side, but this is gaming history I’m experiencing, so that’s OK. But wait! What’s this on the inside cover?

Signed Cyborg Commando rulebook

Unless I’m mistaken, those are the signatures of Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer themselves! (Too bad the owner of this boxed set didn’t get Kim Mohan’s signature as well, for completeness’ sake; alas.) The writing in the top left (in what looks like Gygax’s handwriting) says “At Gencon XX, 1987.” Gencon 1987 was the same year Cyborg Commando was released, so the publisher may have been selling signed copies at their booth at the convention.

What a cool surprise! It actually is a piece of gaming history. It’s not as cool as having an actual vintage D&D book signed by Gygax, but it somehow feels even nerdier, which is good. I also suspect there’s no shortage of signed Gygax books out there, given his decades-long involvement in the hobby—but this is the only Gygax signature in my collection, so it’s pretty special. I may never play this game, but it sits proudly atop my gaming bookshelf.

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I fought the law, and the law rolled a natural 20: staying off the grid in an RPG

I’ve been reading this week about the hunt for Evan Ratliff, a Wired writer who wanted to find out how difficult it would be to completely “vanish” in a digital society. He struck out under a false identity, and Wired readers were challenged to locate him. Ratliff managed to stay invisible for about a month before a clever person tracked him down.

I particularly enjoyed listening to Ratliff describe the experience of being “on the run,” and the growing paranoia that gripped him as the chase went on. By the end, he couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder wherever he went, and he began suspecting every person he encountered of being a potential hunter out to get him.

There’s a definite hook here for gamers to consider. Think about the number of roleplaying games (particularly those set in the present day or the future) in which evading the government or a similarly powerful entity is a crucial element. Maybe the PCs are criminals or freedom fighters trying to avoid the law. Maybe they’re secret agents, wizards, vampires, or any other type of being that wants to keep a low profile. Yet how many game books spend much time discussing what keeping “off the grid” actually entails?

Back in The Day, I GM’d a long-running Top Secret/S.I. campaign in which the PCs (secret agents) engaged in a whole lot of… attention-grabbing activity. High-speed chases on motorcycles armed with missiles and flamethrowers. Gunfights on the Golden Gate Bridge. High-rise buildings ravaged by running grenade battles. Typical James Bond stuff—and while we all paid lip service to the PCs’ need to avoid arrest, I really only used law enforcement as a loose, background threat. When it was time to wrap up a scene, I’d announce that sirens could be heard in the distance as a way of telling the PCs to stop dithering around and clear out. (A PC was arrested every great now and then, but we handwaved it away by having his spy agency get the charges against him dropped through an unspecified legal subterfuge.)

For most games, it works best to leave the threat of the law as a simple background element. It’s no fun, after all, if James Bond’s exciting adventures are regularly interrupted by police who tracked him down using spent shell casings recovered from his last gunfight against Soviet spies. But it could be fun to occasionally allow the “evade the long arm of the law” theme take center stage. Playing the fugitive could be a fun change of pace.

I own only one RPG book that deals concretely with the “PCs as fugitives” idea—Crusade of Ashes, from the official Orpheus campaign. In it, the PCs are on the run from the FBI, and so the book spends some time talking about what to do to stay off the grid (don’t use credit cards, take jobs that pay cash under the table, etc.). It’s more of a short primer on the topic rather than an in-depth treatment, but it’s an informative read.

I’m sure there are other RPG books that touch on this. White Wolf’s Tales of the 13th Precinct has tempted me for a while for this reason; and I have a vague memory that one or more Call of Cthulhu rulebooks went into some detail on how criminal investigations are carried out. Law enforcement is just one aspect of the “evading the grid” theme, but it’s an important part.

What other RPG books out there talk about running a game with PCs who must keep off the grid? What books (RPG or otherwise) explain the tools that governments/megacorporations/police detectives employ to track down fugitives?

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The coolest RPG sourcebook I can't bring myself to buy

One of my previous jobs exposed me to a lot of different religious websites. Most of these were perfectly respectable websites by perfectly respectful people, but there were a few I came across that were… well, a good ways down the road to crazyland.

One of the websites I came across—and I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to discern whether this falls into the Reasonable or Crazy category—is that of Texe Marrs, an end-times preacher who talks a lot about the Illumati, the JFK assassination, the Mark of the Beast, and the many ways those topics all supposedly tie together.

Why do I bring this up on a blog dedicated to gaming, you ask? Well, because Marrs’ latest insane manifesto book , Mysterious Monuments: Encyclopedia of Secret Illuminati Designs, Masonic Architecture, and Occult Places, might as well be a sourcebook for Unknown Armies. Here’s the back-cover blurb:

A sinister and curious Architectural Colossus is exploding across planet earth. Are mysterious monuments part of a Grand Design? Are the Illuminati elite using satanic architecture and magic to seduce men’s minds and catapult humanity into a New Order of the Ages?

Gee, I hope so, because that sounds awesome.

Take a look at its list of contents and tell me this doesn’t sound like a list of adventure seed locations from a typical horror/investigation/conspiracy RPG. Among the topics covered:

  • The Georgia Guidestones, whose mysterious builders left frightening messages in granite demanding that some six billion inhabitants of planet earth be eliminated to achieve “perpetual balance with nature.” (page 21)
  • The Great American Pyramid, newly erected in Memphis, Tennessee—was it dedicated to the Devil by the Illuminati millionaire who oversaw its construction? (pages 28 and 29)
  • The odd “Stonehenge” structure in California which serves as the entrance to an Apple Computer Corp. facility. Questions: Why is Apple’s logo an image of an apple with a bite taken out of it? And why did the company’s founders price their first product, the Apple 1 computer, at exactly $666? (Page 56)
  • Astana, Kazakhstan, gleaming new occult City of the Illuminati. Is this city slated to become the antichrist’s futuristic, new capital and global headquarters? (pages 64-67)
  • Sandusky, Ohio, a city laid out in the form of a Masonic square and compass, home to the company that operates “The Beast,” the world’s largest wooden rollercoaster, which boasts three 6-car trains, numerologically 666. (page 124)

(Sandusky, Ohio, eh? Who knew?)

Honestly, that would work just great as a list of plot seeds for a game of World of Darkness (any of them), Call of Cthulhu, Conspiracy X or anything written by Ken Hite.

Unfortunately, there are at least two things keeping me from picking it up, as much as I love this stuff:

  1. It’s $35 plus shipping and handling (hey, Marrs is even using RPG rulebook pricing!).
  2. That $35 plus shipping and handling would be funding a lot of Crazy, and I don’t think I want that on my conscience.

I’m willing to bet that this particular book doesn’t come with the “hey kids, remember this isn’t real” disclaimer that a lot of horror RPGs did (and some still do). So I think for now I’ll stick to buying my occult-conspiracy RPG books from people who don’t actually believe their contents to be true….

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One man's unplayable game, another man's source of endless fun

What makes a good game good, and a bad game bad? If you’ve ever frequented any of the big RPG forums, you know that gamers can be vicious in their criticism of games that don’t meet their personal standards. This rather mundane observation sprang to mind today as I was reading Grognardia‘s post on Monte Cook’s new “Dungeonaday” venture.

The Dungeonaday project is interesting, as is James Maliszewski’s insightful-as-always commentary on it. (Seriously, that’s a blog that should be on your daily reading list.) But I did a full stop (actually, I let loose with a bemused “hah!”) when I read this sentence from the post:

[Monte Cook] was, after all, the writer of the execrable Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

The "execrable" game itself.Why did that strike me as funny? Because I think I’ve run Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil more than any other adventure campaign in my gaming career—at least three or four different times, for a different gaming group each time. And I loved it each time, as did my players. So hearing somebody describe it as “execrable” is just amusing; I’m sure they have a perfectly good reason for disliking it, but for such a horrifically bad product, it’s provided me with a heck of a lot of entertainment!

I have not read a formal review of Return, so for all I know I’m alone in my opinion that it’s a really fun D&D campaign. And I’m not criticizing James for his judgment at all; I have my own list of games and sourcebooks I think are terrible that somebody out there absolutely loves. There is no product or work of art in the world that isn’t loved by some and hated by others. But I think the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” holds particularly true in the gaming hobby, where creativity and enthusiasm can redeem even the most poorly written, badly designed game product.

This is one reason I tread more carefully with game reviews than I do with movie or book reviews. There’s not much I can do to make The Phantom Menace an excellent movie. But it’s a rare gaming product, however mediocre it might be, that can’t be turned into something fun if you’re willing to put in the effort.

There are a lot of game materials I’ve had a great time with that are often roundly (and in some cases accurately) condemned when they come up in online discussions and reviews:

  • No online discussion of Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG is complete without people chiming in to remind us that its combat system is “horribly broken” and “unplayable”—a fact my game group somehow managed not to notice during our entirely enjoyable adventures with that game.
  • TSR’s early Dragonlance modules for AD&D are legendary for committing the cardinal sin of gaming: railroading. Ask a veteran gamer and you’ll hear how those awful modules force players down predetermined paths, leeching all the fun out of the gaming experience. And yet that didn’t stop my young self from having a great time with them (they were among my earliest introductions to D&D, as it happens).
  • Rolemaster‘s supposed glut of charts is often said to make the game painful at best and unplayable at worst. But my high-school self ran that game for years without being troubled by its alleged unplayability.
  • Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Roleplaying is generally considered to be quite unsuited for roleplaying in Middle Earth. But as with Rolemaster, I ran it for years and somehow failed to notice this supposedly game-damning problem.

(I often suspect that Rifts players can relate to this; I can think of few games that are criticized quite so much as it is, and for generally compelling reasons; but it makes me perversely happy to think that people are having fun with Rifts anyway.)

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t critique games, or even declare them Bad if we think they merit the condemnation. And hey, many of the games above actually are flawed, some of them in serious ways; in many cases the critics are dead-on with their judgments. Those Dragonlance modules really are railroady. Rolemaster really does have way too many charts. The combat system in Decipher’s LotR really does have serious problems. For all I know, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil really does have some terrible feature that makes it bad.

But I’ll never cease to be amazed at how much fun you can have with a “terrible” game. And if you’re having that much fun with it… how terrible can it really be?

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Lend me a hand, Wizards: sell me some non-randomized miniatures

I bet this miniature gets a lot of use in your average D&D gameI like Wizards’ pre-painted plastic miniatures, both the D&D and Star Wars flavors—I make heavy use of them in the games I run. But I really think Wizards is missing an opportunity by not releasing a few RPGer-friendly miniature sets.

By this I mean that I would be a happier GM if I could go to my friendly local game store and buy a box of non-random, themed plastic miniatures—say, a box of a dozen skeletons, or goblins, or kobolds or Stormtroopers or what-have-you. As it is, because the miniature packs sold by Wizards are randomized, I’ve got just as much chance of winding up with a celestial black bear (truly, a staple of any D&D game) as I do of getting the basic gnoll that I’ll actually use in my game.

Yes, it’s not too difficult to assemble “encounter groups” by purchasing miniatures individually from a place like GMSarli Games or Miniature Market. The former online store even sells themed encounter packs to make your life easier. But why isn’t Wizards doing this? Why aren’t they selling packs of miniatures as companions to the adventure modules they’re releasing? (Some brave soul on has gone through and listed out miniatures that cover every monster in Keep on the Shadowfell—looks awesome, but prohibitively expensive to collect individually.)

Ah well, I’m just another GM ranting that Wizards isn’t making the exact product that he wants… but I’ve seen other gamers online calling for non-random miniature sets, and you’d think Wizards could at least test the concept with a release or two. Wizards, are you listening? Add my vote to the record….

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When a game session goes well

There’s nothing quite so fun as a game session that goes well. (Well, there probably are a few other things that are that fun. But just a few.)

Last night I ran a D&D 3.5 game that was… just a great deal of fun. Gaming over the last year has been a tad lackluster for various reasons, but sessions like last night’s remind why I love this hobby so much. A few observations from the game:

  • I love playing with newbies. A couple of the people in last night’s game group were totally new to D&D. I love being there when the game finally “clicks” for them. Almost invariably, about an hour into the game, there’s a flash of excitement and understanding on their face and they ask: “You mean… my character can do anything I want in this game?” Last night, that moment came as the party explored an old warehouse, came to a closed door behind which they knew enemies were lurking, and realized… hey, we don’t have to charge through that door—we don’t even have to fight these enemies at all if we don’t want to. A simple scene, but inspiring!
  • I’m never going to tire of D&D. That’s not entirely true; every couple of years I get overdosed on D&D and need to take some time off to play other games instead. But I always come back. At the end of the day, I’ll never say no to a good old-fashioned game of fantasy adventurers, sinister villains, and noble quests. Other great games come and go, but nothing does “kill the bad guys and take their stuff” like D&D.
  • I love gaming. This is probably an obvious point, but I had an epiphany this weekend: I love gaming just as much as I did when I was younger, but these days my reasons for loving gaming are quite a bit different. As one of the players last night commented during the game: “You know, for me, D&D is really all about eating unhealthy snacks and laughing with friends.” When I was a kid, I played RPGs with my friends because we loved the games; the social interaction with my friends was just a side benefit. Today, I play RPGs with friends almost entirely because of the social interaction: few other activities let me laugh and connect with them in quite the same way. There were times during the game last night that the entire table was paralyzed with laughter at somebody’s witty one-liner. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

As with any social activity, not every game is a transformative and joyous experience, as any gamer will tell you. But when they do go well, they leave me glowing for days. And now I couldn’t possibly be in better spirits for my trip to Gencon later this week!

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Ultima VII, sixteen years late

Well, I’ve finally gone and done it. After years of being pestered nagged lovingly encouraged by a friend to play through the Greatest Computer RPG of All Time, I finally broke down. Using Exult to get it working properly on my non-DOS operating system, I finally installed and started playing Ultima 7: The Black Gate.

U7 is widely regarded as one of the high points in computer RPG history. (My personal pick for best computer RPG is Planescape: Torment—we’ll see if that opinion changes after getting through U7.) I can’t speak yet about U7‘s quality as a game, but I will testify that I have long considered it to have the coolest game box cover of all time:


According to rumor, Ultimas 8 and 9 were originally intended to have matching covers in red and blue. Would that they had. Clean, simple, classy: this box art told the sophisticated gamer of 1992 that he was dealing with an RPG considerably classier than the luridly-illustrated competition:


I might also note that U7‘s cover was significantly classier than at least one previous Ultima cover, which was sufficiently demonic-looking to cause my parents to refuse to purchase it for me (and the mention of “astrological influences” on the back cover of the game box didn’t help):


But I digress. What of U7? I’ve only put a few hours into it, but thus far it’s quite good. The graphics and interface are extremely clunky, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to that when the game itself is really good—try playing the original Doom sometime and you’ll see what I mean. For the first ten minutes you’ll be marveling at the crude graphics; by the fifteen-minute mark you’re as hooked as you were back in 1993 when you first played it.

If there was a point to this post beyond aimless jabbering, I’ve lost sight of it. Excuse me; I’ve got Ultima 7 to fire up.

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GaryCon 2008: Mr. Gygax, we salute you

gygaxMany, many people have in the last few days written eloquent tributes to Gary Gygax, so I won’t try and compete with them—I’ll just say that if Gary Gygax had not created a little game called Dungeons & Dragons, my life would be radically different than it is.

How many hours did I spent in my youth poring over game rulebooks, plotting out adventures in my mind, rolling up dozens and dozens of characters just for the sheer imaginative thrill of it? My first roleplaying experience was Tomb of the Lizard King—not one of Gary’s modules, but it wasn’t long before I was soaking up every piece of Gygax writing I could find. My cousins and I had so much fun with Tomb of the Lizard King that we proceeded to hole up for three straight days doing nothing but playing D&D (much to the consternation of our parents, who didn’t know what the heck to make of our excited babbling about clerics and hit points and gelatinous cubes). None of us had even the slightest idea what we were doing (my cousins made me GM even though I had never before laid eyes on a rulebook), but we knew we had stumbled upon something incredible. I have vivid memories of hours spent intensely reading through my cousin’s copy of the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide. After that it was Top Secret, Middle Earth Role Playing, Mechwarrior and many others… games written by others but which owed their existence to Gygax’s pioneering. Thank you, Gary Gygax, for sharing your creation with the rest of us, and for giving this awkward teenager an outlet for his imagination.

garyconTonight we participated in what some are calling “GaryCon”—a game of dungeon-crawling, kobold-killing, treasure-looting D&D in memory of Gary. I ran the players through a mostly improvised dungeon populated by skeletons, giant rats, and an owlbear, and remembering Gary’s DMG advice not to coddle players, I even managed to kill one of them with said owlbear. It was not the best game I’ve ever run, nor was it the worst: it was just a good game, and that seemed perfectly appropriate.

At the end of the game we each rolled a d20 in honor of Gary. I rolled a 19.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gygax.

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