Thursday, December 27, 2018

Reviewing Strongholds & Followers

 I have been a little busy with real world stuff these past couple of months—the kind of things that are health-related—and so I have not been as active on the blog as I would like. Sorry about that. But I am still working, writing, and thinking about gaming and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. To that end, I will point you to Matt Colville’s YouTube channel, because he eats, sleeps, and breathes this stuff and I find myself in agreement with him, like, 98% of the time, when it comes to running D&D games. This is very likely because we are about the same age and have experienced many of the same things, and also we have very similar tastes regarding First Edition Stuff (such as Appendix N) and how we use it in gaming.

Colville is also very sincere and genuine in his discussions (really a monograph) of running and playing D&D. It shows, and it’s one of the things that makes him so likeable. It almost makes me forgive him for mispronouncing “archetype” every single time he says it.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Dice Delve: D&D Waterdeep Dragon Heist Dice

From the very first set of dice I bought from my local hobby store, there's just something cool about "official" products for your game. It's like saying, "Okay, here's what we recommend you play with." The first of these TSR dice were called "Dragon Dice" back in the day, and while they were a necessary item at the time, the dice were made out of terrible plastic that didn't last six months before they started cracking and chipping on every edge. By the time TSR had corrected their "official" dice, they had been supplanted by a horde of other, better dice manufacturers selling quality, high impact plastic dice that looked like jewels. Game over, TSR. Game over.

Eventually, TSR crept back into that corner of the gaming marketplace, and did so with some modest dice that were clearly sourced from a major manufacturer. No more of those soft pastel dice that chipped and cracked at the edges like mica! And while they never got that market share back, it was a nice side-item of sorts.

Now D&D is in the capable hands of Wizards of the Coast, and these guys know how to accessorize. Have you seen those spin-down life counters? Those cool d20s with the speckled pattern and the Magic: The Gathering symbol on the 20? Those are so cool! If they can do those, and produce them for every one of their M:TG sets, then a set of dice for D&D should be a walk in the park for them, right? ...Right? see...

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

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 ginormous, too-big-for-a-coffee-table Coffee Table book that's really a giant victory lap of sorts for the World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game. Not in a bad way.

This product was released in two versions; the one pictured on the left, a whatever Amazon is charging for it these days $50 investment that is equal parts revisionist history and art and marketing survey. For old-timers, there is a lot of "Oh, I remember that!" and "That's my favorite Module Art!" moments, along with company history that manages to be earnest in not quite dishing the dirt, but happily pointing out the quirks. It's big, it's heavy, it's hard to read. But for those of you who want something a little more upscale, read on, McDuff...

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Dice Delve: Skulls!

In honor of the Spooky Season, I thought I'd dispense with the formal review and instead showcase one of the subsets in my ridiculously odd collection, and that's my affection for Skull Dice. That's right, those D6 polyhedrals with a skull in place of the 1 (or sometimes the 6). This may be the oldest novelty dice, first produced in the 1980s, as an inked drawing on a blank face, and later carved into the dice as part of the molding process.

Lots of manufacturers have made and continue to make Skull Dice; Koplow, Chessex, Q-Workshop, and many others have them in their line-up even today. What are they good for, anyway? I eventually worked a couple of systems out to make use of them, because what's cooler than throwing bones and coming up with skulls? Doom for you! Check out some of my favorite Doombringers below.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Dice Delve: Chessex Marbelized Ivory Polyhedral Set

I used to work for Chessex, and I am an unapologetic fan of their EuroDice, both the opaque and the Speckled varieties. I think that they are among the best dice available for RPG and tabletop gaming--maximum quality with minimum cash outlay. Even when I don't like something about a color combination, it's a tough love kind of thing, since I used to work for the company and presumably am in some kind of position to know better.

Chessex, like other dice sellers, also buys dice to resale from other dice makers--presumably not the same people who make their Speckled dice for them, but you never know, because it's kind of a trade secret. Speaking only for myself, as soon as you move away from Urea as a manufacturing component, it becomes a lot easier to see the flaws in a dice color or a plastic combination. This is not always a good thing, especially if you're the kind of person who has opinions about stuff. What am I talking about? Read on and see for yourself.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 5: The End of an Era

Sword and Sorcery became an exploitation genre, rife with quickie production schedules, recycled sets, props and costumes, and written-on-the-fly scripts that checked boxes for mandatory story elements. The only bronze-thewed barbarian that managed to escape such a fate was, inexplicably, Beastmaster, which made not one, but two sequels and then morphed into a syndicated television series that lasted more than one season. Unbelievable. 

Meanwhile, over at the first-run theaters, where the floors were slightly less sticky, an attempt was being made to both cash in on the epic fantasy genre and also elevate it somewhat. The results were decidedly mixed, to say the least. That’s not to say that these movies weren’t good, or that they weren’t an integral part of growing up in the 1980s, but these movie swing far and away from the Robert E. Howardian gothic horror sensibility that informed Conan (and E. Gary Gygax), and the Vancian magic of the Dying Earth stories, and even the darker corners of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. We’re now in some version of the real world, more fairy tale—but not fey—than Epic Fantasy or High Fantasy.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

In Defense of Bad Movies Part 2: FLAAAASSSHH!

Check out the muscles
on Blonde Conan!
In Part 1 of  In Defense of Bad Movies, I outlined the disconnect between film critics and the general public. If you want to read it, you can certainly do that. Now that I have made this particular bed, I’m going to lie in it by taking a pipe wrench to the skull of a film most beloved and personal to the Geek Nation. Let’s all watch some people’s heads explode. Fun!

Since I mentioned Flash Gordon (1980) in Part 1 as an example of a bad movie, I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why I think this is so. Before you start typing your hate mail, there's some objective criteria below that you ought to look at. I put pictures in the post, so you wouldn't have to just take my word for it. If you make it all the way to the end and still feel triggered, just follow this link over to my Facebook page and let fly with your invective. I'm bracing myself for impact. Okay, enough of that; let's go tip some sacred cows!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Dice Delve: Chessex Pound-O-Dice

I am going to break the format slightly for the purposes of this bulk dice review. A lot of people are buying mass quantities of dice, either for new players or to bolster existing collections. As a game master, I like to have a lot of options available for me to match my admittedly capricious moods, and I also like to hand out new dice to beginning players, since it's easier to simply give them what they need than expect them to know what they need. 

These days, thanks to lax international shipping and a variety of online shopping sites, starter dice sets are very cheap. Cool dice that you really want to play with cost a little more and are a really personal choice for each person, but for new players, all you really need are the correct sizes and shapes and you're good to go.

Still, these bulk buys are not without their charm, especially when you have a company like Chessex, who are known for their awesome speckled dice, offering a big-ass bag of them for a relatively low price. Sounds great, right? 

Friday, October 12, 2018

In Defense of Bad Movies Part 1: Somewhere Between High Art and Cult Classic

I’m writing a lot about old movies at the moment on both of my current blogs. Finn’s Top 5 is happening over at the Finn’s Wake blog, and my biased look back at the fantasy films of the 1980s that informed our Dungeons and Dragons games is happening over at Confessions of a Reformed RPGer. I like writing about film; I have been a professional reviewer and critic for many years now, and I’ve been named one of the top movie reviewers in Texas by the Associated Press Managing Editors several times. You may also know that I am co-owner of a movie theater in North Texas that plays first-run movies on two screens, which is kind of like a unicorn in today’s market.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons & Dragons, Part 4: The Best of the Rest

There were, in the middle of all this epic swordplay, a handful of near misses and one-offs, as well as a couple of Science-Fantasy “epics” that seemed more like an attempt to pander to the Star Wars crowd as well as offer up mediocre swordplay and derring-do (or bad jump kicks). Hollywood wasn’t interested in making the next fantasy blockbuster; they were obsessed with remaking that last fantasy blockbuster, only much cheaper than before. We ended up renting these at the video stores because, come on, no one saw this in the theater. How on Earth could we have? They were rated R for nudity, and/or they were shown at the drive-in (we had no car at the time), and so we had to wait until they made it to VHS or HBO. Or both.

Thankfully, my parents owned and operated a video rental store throughout my high school years, which was great for me, since I was allowed to advise as to the movies we stocked in the horror and science fiction sections. This made me the go-to guy for staying caught up on the latest nerd-films, from cult classics like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai to the magnum opuses listed below. What they provided for us gamers, more than anything, was laughs—hoots of derision or just knowing, rueful chuckles. After all, we had seen better films, hadn’t we? Maybe we weren’t the most discerning of audiences, but we did have some taste, right?

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Dice Delve: Chain-Chain-Chaaaaaaain...Chain of Diiiiice...

Impact! Miniatures has made a great contribution to the OSR community by manufacturing a full line of odd-and-unusual dice specifically for games like Dungeon Crawl Classics, Mutant Crawl Classics, and their upcoming release, Lankhmar that utilizes a “dice chain” mechanic that goes from 1d3 to 1d30. You can one-stop shop and get exactly what you need, which is a good thing, because searching hither and thither for a d16 is, in my opinion, a bunch of bullshit. If you make a game that relies on weird-ass dice, you are obligated to provide those dice to your customers. Which they do. But Impact does a better job of it, in my opinion

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons & Dragons, Part 3: Secondary Sources

As the 1980s trundled on, fueled by Miami Vice, swatches, and Duran Duran videos, the fantasy films should have gotten better, but they didn’t. After such a promising start, the rush to make more of the same spawned a host of shittier and shitter sword and sorcery movies, each one worse that the last. The genre had split into two tracks: cheap-o boob-grab exploitation nonsense, or big budget ham-fisted embarrassments, and both of these new movie styles served to give Sword and Sorcery a bad name.

Granted, we still watched them, because we were young and our tastes had yet to fully develop, and also because even the mediocre movies had cool swords, sometimes pretty cool effects, and maybe a neat battle sequence or some wizardly shenanigans or a monster. At least, that's what we hoped. We were quickly getting used to disappointment.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Girls! In Our Games?!

I have to confess that I have no idea whatsoever where this whole “Girls aren’t real gamers” bullshit is coming from. I have theories, and I have suppositions, which I may well share at the end of this, but for now, I just want to offer up a corrective against the small but strident natterings of some of these chuckleheads online who love to speak in Trollish and yearn for the downfall of society so that John Norman’s vision of the planet Gor can finally come to pass. Side note to the chuckleheads: all of those multitude of fantasy paperbacks from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, you pick those books to inform your sub-culture? Part of your problem right there is that you have no taste.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Dice Delve: Double Six, Triple Four

A lot of people re-invent the wheel, and just as many will occasionally pretend the wheel is broken so they can "fix it." I've seen a lot of game aids over the years designed to correct a problem that I never in my life saw as being an issue; the hobby's equivalent to the Slap Chop.

Not all innovations are bad, you know. We all hate how D4 dice don't roll, are hard to fish out of the tackle box, and become weaponized when they fall on the floor. And yet, there isn't anything we can do about it, is there? Well, is there? 

Don't be so silly. Of course there is!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons & Dragons – The Ray Harryhausen Playbook

While the current crop of fantasy and sword and sorcery films were hit and miss in the early 1980’s, there was at least one library of cinematic wonder we could all reference for both style and substance. For many members of the Dungeons and Dragons crowd, their first exposure to the magic of Ray Harryhausen was Clash of the Titans (1981), which turned out to be his last movie. Side note: they had planned a follow-up to Clash which was to be all about the Norse myths: Thor, his chariot pulled by goats, ravens, the Midgard Serpent, Fenris Wolf, the giants…I can’t even fathom how cool that would have been. I just can’t.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Dragon Magazine Was Our Internet

It’s difficult to get teenagers, or even twenty year olds, to care about things that happened four decades ago. I get it. Forty years in the modern world might as well be a hundred, and the speed with which we develop continues to its inevitable terminal velocity. Talking about anything more nuanced and complicated than the music of the 1980s will send most Millennials screaming from the room.

But it’s interesting to me because—and this is a micro-example of the larger questions being posed to mass media today—our sources of information were extremely limited. We had three or four channels, if we were lucky: ABC, NBC, and CBS. There was also PBS, in case you needed help with your reading. And you probably did, because there was a lot more of it. Magazines and newspapers were still everywhere. What’s worse, you had to BUY them. With MONEY.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Dice Delve: Kung Who? Kung FU!

You don't notice lettering in comic books until its done badly. Same thing with editing in movies. Those things are invisible to the untrained eye when working as intended, and raised to an artform for the initiated. It's the same with graphic design; you don't "see" what a good job someone did until you see what a bad job another person did. 

In this vein, there are a lot of people out there in the Artisanal Craft Dice arena who have a basic understanding of Adobe Illustrator, enough money to order a bunch of raw materials, and they are off to the races. I see a lot of mediocre to bad dice being sold on Etsy and other online sites. To quote Tyler Durden, stuffing feathers up your ass does not make you a chicken. But there are some people out there who are doing it right. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons & Dragons – Primary Sources

In the 1980s we had an embarrassment of riches when it came to printed material; everything from stacks of paperback books, comics, Frazetta posters and print books (and other artists, as well, but c’mon…FRAZETTA), and even maps that we could hang on our walls for inspiration.

Another thing happened in the 1980s and that was this: special effects took a quantum leap forward. Now it was possible to put stuff on screen that would have required Ray Harryhausen to pull off. This was entirely because of the astronomical success of movies by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and given that back then it took four to five years to make a major motion picture, 1977 plus 5 equals…1982. Prime Zeitgeist Real Estate for giant fantasy films and also the perfect sweet spot for wooing a horde of eager D&D players to the movies. Sword, knights, barbarians, magic, monsters…we were there, man. Even if we had to sneak in (or wait until HBO picked it up and ran it into the ground).

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Unasked-For Thoughts on 5e

Well, they certainly solved the question of
scale. That's a second-level cleric.
I kid! I kid the Player's Handbook.
It's really a third level cleric.
It’s obvious, I think, to everyone reading this blog that I’m currently playing and creating in the fifth iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, or 5e, as the kids call it these days. Part of this was an economic convenience in that it’s what’s out right now, and also one borne of necessity, i.e. that’s what all of the content is aimed at. But it doesn’t HAVE to go down that way, right? I mean, there are a metric shit-ton of Old School inspired systems out there, all using some version of the Basic/Expert edition of D&D or the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Or, if I wanted something insanely commercial, there’s Pathfinder, which is D&D 3.5 re-skinned.  Oh, who am I kidding? There’s no way in HELL I would inflict Pathfinder on anyone. I’m not a monster.

But that brings up another factor: I have been running games for newcomers to tabletop role-playing games. Twelve new players in all, spread over several games and campaigns, each one of them familiar with the subject matter, but have never rolled funny-shaped dice before in their lives. Is the current version of D&D a good “first RPG” experience for newcomers?

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Dice Delve: The Power of Clarity

Today I'm going to pick a slapfight by tipping a sacred cow. I'm old, and my tastes run to the old, the vintage, the decrepit. You know, like stuff from 1985. The Dark Ages. When Dinosaurs roamed the Earth. And speaking of dinosaurs...

Lou Zocchi is one of the longest-running manufacturers of RPG-based products. He may be THE longest-running, and good on him for doing so. And like most people who've been in business since the 1970s, he's had his share of ups and downs. GameScience is currently the Elder Statesman of the Artisanal Craft Dice Movement. These should be the dice I prefer, since I'm crunchy and crusty, right? Let's just see what the current batch of GameScience dice looks like.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Playing Games, Part 8: Just When I Thought I Was Out...

Nobody does Pacino from Godfather 3. They all do
Silvio doing Pacino from Godfather 3. 

Several years ago, I was employed by a homeschooling family as their creative arts teacher for one of their kids; a smart, funny, creative young man who was a little shy and needed help with his verbal and language skills. When he was younger, I was initially reading comics with him, which we both got a kick out of. Now that he was older now, he was into video games and Skyrim and all of that stuff. So, I thought, let’s kill a few birds with one stone and try Dungeons and Dragons first edition. He really took to it, and I re-discovered, I did, too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Playing Games Part 7: Games I Wanted to Play (But Never Did)

How cool is the artwork in this ad?
At my most geekiest, most gamiest, there wasn't a game I wouldn't try at least once. And I did, too: BattleTech, Dr. Who, Star Trek, Space: 1889 (the birth of SteamPunk gaming, kids),  Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes, Rolemaster (AKA "Chartmaster") and so many others got a afternoon's delight from me and then I was off in search of new thrills. And like any thrill-seeker, I had targets in mind. Oh, yes, there were games I wanted to play so very badly. But that was the problem with RPGs back in the day: they were a team sport. I personally think it's a big part of the reason why computer gaming was able to compete for the tabletop gaming dollar so successfully: you play by yourself, and go online to find others like you.

Not back then, of course. Computer games used to suck. And if you wanted to play them, well, you'd better learn the rudiments of how to make friends, or you'd be at home, cheating your way through a stack of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Thankfully, I had players, and occasionally, got to play. Here are a few games I wanted to play and never got to.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Dice Delve: The Power of Theme

I'm starting my dice reviews, and I'm sure I will do game reviews soon, as well.  I'm going to post them on Saturdays, which means this little blog is getting updated three times a week. It may not seem like much, but for me, it's huge.

Here are two sets of recent dice from wildly successful Kickstarter campaigns. Both of them lean heavily on their theme to be successful. And both of these companies made bank, with follow-up Kickstarters planned and executed. And while they both nailed the theme, how well did they make the dice?

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Artisanal Craft Dice 6: A Baseline Review

I’ve dropped a lot of dice talk these last few weeks, so today I’m going to do a little show and tell. Here are some dice that live in my ridiculous and chaotic collection. I’ll show them to you, give you as much detail as I can about them, and then grade them using the criteria I’ve outlined here (link to part 5). That way, you can see what I’m on about, and also get a sense of what I value and what I hate. It’s important to understand where a reviewer is coming from, so you can get the most out of said reviews. I’ll talk about what I like, what I don’t like, and what doesn’t work below. You’ll get the hang of it.

Remember: if you want me to review your dice, drop me a line at Finns Wake at Gee Mail Dot Com. I won't promise that I'll love them, but I will promise to give them a fair shake. And a fair roll. Hah! Dice humor! See what I did there? Okay, let's get on with it.

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

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

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 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

Artisanal 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:

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Artisanal Craft Dice Part 1: My Torrid and Complicated Relationship With Dice

In 2018, there is no more accessory to table top gaming that is more fetishized and objectified than dice. Not books, not miniatures, not pens and pencils and paper. Dice. Platonic solids. And not just any dice, oh, no, no. What used to be a necessary, somewhat utilitarian contrivance has officially become an obsession for many people. What used to be something we had maybe twelve to fifteen of has mushroomed into a very expensive collecting endeavor that costs upwards of hundreds of dollars. We’ve gone round the bend, us gamers. We don’t just have dice, anymore.

Now we’ve got artisanal craft dice.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Classic Mark Finn: Roll to Hit, D&D turns Forty!

Note: this is a reprint of an old Finn's Wake article. Please don't tell me this happened four years ago. I was there. I remember.

 Dungeons & Dragons is celebrating its 40th year of existence. Wow.

To commemorate the occasion, I had hoped to do an influence chart similar to the one I created for Raidersof the Lost Ark, but there is no time. And besides, it’s less interesting than just posting the list from Appendix N in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Playing Games Part 1: Dungeons and Dragons

These are chits. You had to cut them out yourself.
No wonder old gamers are so angry.
I started playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons with my step-brother at the age of 12. Prior to that, I owned a copy of the Basic Dungeons and Dragons rules (what we now call the “Holmes” rules), including the box with B1, In Search of the Unknown, but no dice. Only chits. And to a new player, trying to puzzle through the rules on my own, there was nothing more perplexing and also deeply unsatisfying as drawing chits from a small paper Dixie cup. There’s no way to make that activity cool. Not in 1980. Not now. Not ever.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Late to the Party

Crime? In my city?
I realize what I am doing here is all the rage, if we were in 2010. Be that as it may, I didn't get pulled back into gaming until 2015 or so, at the end of the fourth edition of D&D, and so I was at ground zero for the launch of 5th edition. I think that managed to kill most of the OSR blogs out there, like a weirdly configured EMP. But there were a few of them that morphed (or mutated, if you prefer a more Gamma World-esque metaphor) into writing about fifth edition content and homebrew rules and converting first edition shenanigans into fifth edition systems.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The obligatory first post

These are just the worst. I really want to start this blog out In Media Res, so let's try that:

...Willingham leaned in and said, "So this large, orange and white striped barnyard cat comes trotting over to you..."

Ray, evidently bored silly with the pace of the game, blurted out, "I disintegrate it."

Willingham's mouth opened and closed, like he did sometimes when he was struck dumb for a response, which, if you know Willingham, is hardly ever. To be fair, all the rest of us were staring at Ray, our collective pie holes agape.

Ray sensed he'd stepped in it, but he also didn't know anyone at the playtest, and so he felt he had nothing to lose. He croaked out again, "Disintegrate."

Willingham sighed, and picked up a handful of dice. "Okay, if you're sure you want to do that..."

Weldon, Brad and I found our voice, and a howl of disapproval went up, but it was too late. The die was cast, and that barnyard cat vanished in a plume of smoke and fur.

Willingham shook his head. "The field mouse says, 'You--You just killed our sheriff!"

We all wearily reached for our dice. The game had come completely off the rails.



My step-father brought home a game one night. It came in a small box, not like a board game. The cover was striking: a red dragon, atop a pile of treasure, was making the snarly-face at a wizard, complete with pointy hat, and a warrior in plate mail with a bow and arrow. Across the top, in circus-display letter, was the name Dungeons and Dragons. It was the 1977 Blue Box. And it changed everything.

Zinequest 3 is upon us! Here Are Some Recommendations!

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