Thursday, August 30, 2018

Playing Games Part 6: Going Off the Reservation


Once I made the decision to step out of the box on D&D and see other RPGs, I was something of a “loose” GM, if you know what I mean and I think you do. I figured out pretty quick that some games were better at simulating specific genres than others. I eventually amassed a shelf full of RPGs in boxes and books, and also plastic Ziploc bags and paper envelopes, and clamshell boxes…it got out of hand. I would venture to say that about one-third of the games that I owned I never played, because they were stupid and horrible. We didn’t have the word “crunchy” to describe “lots of rules, many of which are largely not needed” in the 1980s, but we made do with the more elegant, “This sucks.” Others on my shelf were games that people wanted to play, but I didn’t necessarily care about. I ran them, with mixed results, and then never went back to them. Here’s a few of the games I spent a modest amount of table time running for others:

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Artisanal Craft Dice Part 5: Grading the Dice


Graphics! Fancy! Oooh! Ahhh! Just like on the Tee Vee!
This is what I'm going to do: I have a lot of dice, and I want to talk about them. Whenever you see this logo, it means I'm going to be all chatty and catty about the dice I have (or dice that I ended up with). If you like the reviews, that's awesome, and you should probably tell me. If you want me to review something specific, drop me a line at Finnswake at Gee-Mail Dot Com. If you send me dice to review, I will totally do that. Just make sure you want me to review them. I will thank you for free dice, and if I don't like them, I will say so. In print. But I will also explain why, using the system below. That will make my reviews useful to people who regularly read them, because I have a cut and dry criteria to judge dice with, or I'll explain why it gets a pass.

I know, I know. I think about stuff waaaay too much sometimes.

Over the years, having gone from one extreme to the other on this whole thing, and having been involved at every level of dice manufacturing save actually pouring plastic into the molds, I’ve got a clear and concise system for rating all of these newfangled dice and dice-shaped objects that vie constantly for my attention and my dollars. I’m at a point of saturation that I really don’t have any need for any more dice in my life…unless, you know, they’re really cool, or something. And here’s how I grade them to determine if they end up in my seemingly-endless pile.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Playing Games Part 5: Brand Loyalty


Gangbusters ad from the back of Dragon
Magazine. What could possibly go wrong?
We tried to be good consumers, us GenX-Latchkey kids. We really did. It stood to reason that, since Dungeons & Dragons was this really cool thing that we were all into, it stood to reason that the other games in the TSR line would be equally awesome, right? I mean, a couple of these games were mentioned in the Dungeon Masters Guide as possible crossover fodder. Like in a Marvel or DC comic book. Okay, TSR, you had our attention. What do you have for us...what’s that? Boot Hill? Are y’all high or something?

We tried every one of the TSR major releases, up to and including the board games, each time thinking, “It’s going to be different! This time, it won’t be bad!” And, like a latchkey kid whose deadbeat father promises to pick him up for the weekend and then never shows, we trudged back inside the house at the end of the evening, our hopes dashed, but ever-willing to forgive and maybe even forget, and try once more. Here’s what we played, or tried to play, and what I thought of them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Artisanal Craft Dice Part 4: The Dice, They Are A-Changin'


A lot of things happened in the twenty years since I was role-playing with any grace or consistency. It was all part of that larger emergent Geek Culture we heard so much about. The World of Darkness games went away. We got three Lord of the Rings movies. Print-on-Demand and PDF markets suddenly became a thing.  The Big Bang Theory happened. Marvel movies suddenly became a thing. DC movies stopped being a thing. The Board Game market exploded. The OSR movement happened. Every neckbeard in an ill-fitting game convention T-shirt started a blog. The height-weight proportionate ones started a YouTube channel. Dungeons & Dragons turned 40. Celebrities, and also Vin Diesel, came out (sorta) as lifelong gamers. 

Seemingly overnight, everyone was gaming again, this time propped up by these tastemakers and outliers from the Maker and DIY culture. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Playing Games Part 4: Call of Cthulhu


My first HPL book;
is that the most metal
Lovecraft cover ever
or what?
There were three names that leaped out at me from Appendix N, and you can probably say them with me: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft. I had heard of these guys from other sources and now that they were intersecting with Dungeons and Dragons, it was time to run them down. I had read a couple of Lovecraft stories in various horror anthologies along the way, so it was a natural for me to dive right into Arkham and Innsmouth and Dunwich. I've spoken at length about Robert E. Howard. And while I read most of my Clark Ashton Smith in a brief flurry, he never really stuck with me like Howard and Lovecraft.

But there was a whole game devoted to Lovecraft! I was slow to answer the Call of Cthulhu, not because I didn’t want to play it; I did. Badly. Desperately. It’s just that, no one else read the same weird shit that I read. Even in my high school, I was an outlier when it came to Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. Everyone else who read those guys were either already my friends, and/or not into gaming. It was a rural suburb of Waco, Texas, in the 1980s. What did you expect?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Artisanal Craft Dice Part 3: Dealing With Danish Dice Gnomes


Speckled dice! Sexy dice.
Really terrible ad.
Not only did I get to sell dice to retailers, I ended up helping to make them when I was transferred to Chessex Manufacturing in 1995.  I have told this story elsewhere  but I wanted to add as well as clarify a few things from my "in the trenches" side of things. You find out how cheap (or expensive) things are; you have to think about stuff that you never considered as a consumer, such as packaging—those AMAC cubes, for example, and those tiny slips of paper that served as the label all cost money, as well. There were frustrations, like dealing with upper management who had one idea—and maybe not a very good one—and trying to navigate a way to say that without getting fired. I drank a lot in Berkeley, California. For medical reasons.



Saturday, August 11, 2018

Classic Mark Finn: Old School Gaming and the New Shiny

Note: this is a reprint of an old Finn's Wake article from Three Years Ago, But It's Still Prescient Today. 

My rebuilding of my old campaign continues apace. I'm doing it in fits and starts, as I can grab a half an hour or so to myself. I am vacillating back and forth between dusting off old components and bringing them up to new 5th edition rules, and fleshing out 5th edition to meet my campaign's specific needs. For example, in my world, there are five city-states that wield considerable economic and political power. And one of the themes for this new/old campaign is territory expansion, along with warmongering. Because of the emphasis on this environment over say, a Middle Ages King and court, I wrote a background for Bureaucrat. It's a good background. I may post it later. I am working on a background for an exterminator, as well. Another necessary function of city government that could yield an advantage in a dungeon party.

The prettiest goblins ever.
Whilst I was looking over my old notes, drawings, and books, I couldn't help but notice the artwork in the original first edition AD&D books. I know that we consider the early stuff to be crude and unrefined, especially in the wake of what came after. I mean, by any criteria you care to apply, this is a beautiful piece of artwork.

It's well composed, makes good use of light and shadow, employs intelligent color choices, and is well painted and nicely rendered. It's a great piece of artwork. Really nice. And the fifth edition game is literally festooned--gloriously festooned--with hundreds of color plates. We live in an age of bountiful riches, we do.

And yet...as nice as the artwork is, and I don't want to hear any dissent from the lot of you, for it IS nice, I can't help at the same time feeling that the goblins are...what? Informed by popular culture? Maybe they feel like guys in suits? I don't know, exactly, but there's something in this realistic treatment that settles in on my brain rather than opens it up.

Which brings me back to the first edition artwork, and specifically, those artists who contributed so much to the three core books. Diss it all you want, sure, there may have been some pieces that were rough around the edges, but there was something also evocative to the work that I found stimulating rather than limiting. I did then, and I do today.

Here's just a few of my favorite pieces from the books. Granted, these aren't very big; back then, they didn't have to be, the way we pored over every square inch of those pages like they were actual magical tomes.


 I came late to the party where Erol Otus was concerned. His work had a slickness and a stiffness that I didn't understand at the time. Now I look at it and I think he was a genius. This is the standard troll from the monster manual, but drawn in scale with humans and in a setting that would make him infinitely more terrifying. Note the use of texture on the loincloth, the armor, and the hair. Otus was a master at that stuff.







Speaking of texture, this is a frontispiece by Jim Rosloff. He did a lot of the illustrations in the Deities and Demigods books. Remember that amazing picture of Thor fighting the Midgard Serpent? Rosloff. I love this pen and ink treatment here, and the dragon head is also really nice and stylized without being definitive. I mean, we don't really know what color dragon this is. Could be red. Could be gold. It's a mystery. But that's what makes this so cool.






Jeff Dee, along with Bill Willingham, came right after the initial clutch of hardcovers, and they brought a super hero sensibility to their artwork that really resonated with me. I won't post any of Bill's old work because he hates it when I do that, but Jeff is actively trying to recreate his stuff, so good on him.







This piece was unsigned in the Player's handbook, but this is exhibit A when someone says there was no good artwork in the early days of TSR. This is a beautiful penciled piece with dwarven adventurers encountering a magic mouth spell in the dungeon. First of all, look at the cool hallways. Now check out the dwarves. Or are they gnomes? A halfling? I dunno, but it doesn't look like anything I'd seen prior to discovering Dungeons and Dragons.

The new crop of halflings in the 5th edition book look a lot like these fellows. That's probably not an accident.

UPDATE: It was Trampier! See below.



Finally, no discussion of the early AD&D artwork is complete without mentioning Dave Trampier. This guy was a machine, and he contributed so much to the books that you can't really comprehend it all. Small pieces of art, flavor pieces, you name it--oh, and only three fourths of the Monster Manual. Tramp did it all, Jack. And this piece, in the middle of the Dungeon Master's Guide, is a favorite of just about everyone. We join our adventurers in mid-scene, with this guy just riding through town, setting people on fire. What the hell? This guy is a dick! But hey, when you name yourself "Emirikol the Chaotic," you have to maintain a certain standard for yourself.

Apart from that, this piece gives us a lot of contextual clues to help us build a dungeons and dragons town. Brick buildings, flagstones, thatched roofs, covered archway, etc. This town setting that Emirikol is hell-bent of messing up became the basis for the city of Greyhawk, and later, my own towns. I used the Green Griffin as a go-to tavern name so much, they were like a Starbucks franchise in my kingdom.

There was something fun, something evocative, about this rough-around-the-edges first edition artwork. A kind of rustic charm, like woodcuts, that gave you enough information to allow you to understand what you were looking at, but not so much that it supplanted your own imagination.

We're a different world, now, and the production values. Kids these days, with their fancy new roller skates and their Jazz records, have different needs than us old timers. And so, we go for full-color, painted dreamscapes and why not? Now the company can afford to produce such a product. I'll never complain about the upgrades, but for my money, in my secret heart, I still prefer Rosloff's goblins to the new guys.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Playing Games Part 3: Villains and Vigilantes


Jeff Dee, Post-TSR, crushing
it on the game he co-created
with Jack Herman.

There has been, over the years, an incredible debate over which super hero game is the best. It’s a Ford versus Chevy, Coke versus Pepsi kind of thing. I think it boils down to whichever game you were first exposed to is the best one. That is to say, in the end. In the beginning, all you had to do was look at the art for the two major games, Villains and Vigilantes and Champions. Jeff Dee drew giant rings around Mark Williams. V&V looked like a comic book you wanted to read. Champions looked like drawings from the loose-leaf notebook of your really talented artist-friend.

Villains and Vigilantes came into my life thanks to Dragon magazine (the most important magazine in the world, for a while) and the great ad that ran dutifully in every issue for, like, years, with great evocative artwork by Jeff Dee. Now, I recognized both Jeff’s style and his signature as being one of my two favorite artists from TSR. His stuff had a super-heroic-comic-booky style about it anyway, and now here he was, drawing super heroes in a game he co-created. That was all I needed, to be honest. But then I found out Bill Willingham was involved, and that sealed the deal for me. By this time, Willingham had left TSR and was writing and drawing The Elementals for Comico, and it was an indy comics darling. This gave V&V a kind of legitimacy that Champions never had for me and my friends.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Artinanal Craft Dice Part 2: "You Can Never Have Enough Dice!"

Dice Porn!
I was twenty four when I found myself working at Chessex Southwest, at the time when the company was growing like Audrey 2 in Little Shop of Horrors and scaring the hell out of The Armory, Wargames West, and anyone who was distributing games and game supplies. Chessex had parlayed its success as a minor game accessories provider to actually selling games themselves. It started small, with Don Reents selling stuff out of the back of his van in the Bay Area, and became a major thing, nationwide, seemingly unstoppable thing. If you ever played on a vinyl Battlemat, or used Dragonskins on your hardcover books, or owned a set or two of Speckled dice, that’s all thanks to Chessex.


Saturday, August 4, 2018

Classsic Mark Finn: A Few Thoughts About Role-Playing Games

Note: this is a reprint of an old Finn's Wake article. It's because of this that I started this blog. You're welcome.


Dice! Glorious, beautiful dice! The most heavily-fetishized
object at the gaming table by a huge margin.
Watching the third Hobbit movie got me jonesing to play Dungeons and Dragons again. I know a lot of Tolkien purists hate the films, but I don't, because I'm not. Oh, there's stuff I don't like about the movies; don't get me wrong. It's just that I happen to really like the way they've played fast and loose with Tolkien (two adjectives I'd never use to describe his work, which is why I'm not a fan, per se). Never mind the "video game sequence" that seems to be in every movie. Watch the PCs--excuse me, main characters--fight the wandering monst--I mean, the orc patrols--makes me want to roll to hit in the worst possible way.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Playing Games Part 2: Tabletop Gaming Saved My Life


Okay, that’s a great and terrible exaggeration, but it also kinda isn’t. It’s certainly fair to say that had I not found D&D I would not be the person I am today. Certainly not creatively or professionally. I wouldn't have discovered the Three Musketeers of Weird Tales at the time that I did, for instance. I may not have found my way to Lieber and Moorcock. I had these ideas about wanting to be creative, but I didn't have a focus or a direction. D&D gave me a structure to explore everything: improvisation, mimicry, writing, reading an audience, thinking logically and even critically, and so much more. Role-playing really unlocked my creative potential.

Here’s my Top 5 things that role-playing games did for me, in order:

Reviewing Art & Arcana

You have probably seen or heard about this massive tome on The Internets or maybe seen a review on The YouTubes. Art & Arcana is a gi...