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That’s… Disturbingly Specific…

The Infinite Machine Tumblr page posted an image of this creepy memorial:

Memorial

 

The memorial commemorates the victims from the town of Zabalj, Serbia who were slain in 1942 during a raid by the Hungarian Axis forces. Being unfamiliar with this action I went off to Wikipedia to find out more information. The entry for Zabalj mentions the raid and includes the following information:

“During the Hungarian Axis occupation, in 1942 raid, 666 inhabitants of the town were murdered”

-Wikipedia entry for Zabalj

That’s an… oddly specific number of casualties.

Have I mentioned that I’m reading a lot of Delta Green material right now? Or that I’ve always loved the Jewish folktale of The Golem?

Sometimes the adventure seeds write themselves.

Best to keep the B.P.R.D. on speed dial. Just in case.

 

 
 

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Map Musings

I love maps.

It’s certainly one of the things that has always attracted me to Dungeons & Dragons.

I love dungeon maps. From the classic old blue grid maps like the Caves of Chaos, to the isometric maps of Ravenloft and Dragons of Dispair (for all the flaws with that module the map is solid gold), or the beautifully styled maps we see in Goodman Game’s modules for Dungeon Crawl Classics.

I love world maps. Darlene’s Greyhawk is still the gold standard, but the map of the Forgotten Realms from the grey box is also magnificent. Our local museum used to have a map of Middle Earth on the back of the door to their office. It was a straight forward line drawing, but not the one from the books and I’ve never seen that specific design again. I spent as much time looking at that map as some of the exhibits.

Years ago an individual used to make hand drawn maps of the Known World of the Society for Creative Anachronism. I have one on my wall, from way back in A.S. 22 (1988 for non SCAdians). It’s a marvelous piece of art on par with anything TSR put out. Duke Syr Merowald of the Midrealm is the artist.

I adore the cloth maps that came with the Ultima computer games. The map of Britannia from Ultima V is my favorite.

Maps represent possibilities. They let our imaginations explore as we dream of where we can go and what we can find. For me, role playing games are about exploration and maps represent that.

Every now and then I pull out my sketch book and make my own attempts at designing maps. Over the years I’ve found I have certain preferences. These are not “right or wrong” rules of map making, they’re just the things I like. For instance, with dungeon maps I prefer black-and-white (or blue-and-white) to full color and I don’t care for textures, especially on the dungeon floors. I find that these tend to distract the eye from the layout.

However, I do like simple graphics and icons in the map, such as summoning circles or wells drawn in the rooms. I like the occasional 3d element, like an archway or dolmen drawn as the gateway to a standard 2d hallway. I love artwork around the sides of the map, which can be simple filler art or the extravagant and intricate images worked into the Dungeon Crawl Classics maps.

While aesthetically I appreciate dungeon maps done without a grid, such as the wonderful maps Dyson Logos produces, for practical use I still prefer to have a grid. It’s the old school Dungeon Master in me, who wants to figure the blast radius of a fireball quickly. But I must admit, the work Dyson creates is winning me over.

If you’re not familiar with his blog, Dyson’s Dodecahedron, you really need to change that.

Like, now.

Go on, I’ll wait.

For world maps I like both color and black-and-white, but I still prefer simple styles. I don’t want my eyes spending too much time figuring out what something is, I want them to roam over the map with ease. This map from FreeFantasyMaps.org has captured my imagination with its style and my sketchbook is currently filling up with ideas based on it. The map was created using Campaign Cartographer, which is the name in map making software. It’s not cheap, but it’s amazing what you can produce with it.

For those of us on a budget, I recommend Hexographer. The free online version suits my regular needs and the pro version is not expensive.

I’ve also experimented with drawing on my iPad, described here and here, and for that I still recommend Sketchbook Pro. It’s a bit limited, but you can still whip out some decent maps in short order. Plus the cost of the app and a simple stylus will only put you out around $10, so it’s definitely worth giving a try.

Still, for the most part I like the Luddite method of pencils, pens, and paper. One of these days I’ll even learn to use my scanner correctly and then I’ll post some of my own maps.

What do you like in a good map? What maps in particular have captured your imagination? How do you make your own maps?

PlayerRegionMap1

I made this map using Hexographer’s free online tool. I like the overall design, but if I were going to remake it I would drastically reduce the variety of icons I used. How many different forest icons do I really need? Still, it’s a good example of what the tool has to offer.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in Gaming, Maps

 

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I Am The Power!

Foreign knock-offs are the best! Or at least the strangest.

Friends, I give you…

HEE-MAN! Master of None!

That’s apparently not a misspelling.

Witness the awesome transformation!

Behold the dramatic fight scene!

Truly I must track down a copy of this cinematic masterpiece!

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2014 in Movies & TV, Weirdness

 

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The Tower of David

This is possibly the coolest, most cyberpunk community I’ve read about since the walled city of Kowloon.

Standing 45 storeys tall, complete with helicopter landing pad and glorious views of the Avila mountain range, it was built with the intention of becoming a shining new financial centre in Venezuela’s capital.

Since it was abandoned roughly 20 years ago, amid a massive run on the country’s banking sector and the death of its developer, this incomplete skyscraper has been transformed into what has been described as the tallest slum in the world.

The building was seized by squatters in 2007, when then-President Hugo Chavez’s socialist government turned a blind eye, and now about 3,000 people call it their home.

-The Daily Mail

An unfinished skyscraper in the middle of a city, turned into a towering slum community. If that doesn’t make you think of Night City or Megacity One I don’t know what will. I’ve heard of the ghost towers in many Asian nations, unfinished skyscrapers that have been left empty due to lack of tenants or funding, but this is the first time I’ve heard of one that was taken over by squatters and turned into their own vertical city.

According to the article the Tower of David boasts its own form of civic governments, it’s own security, and shops. They’re a village unto themselves, rising out of the city of Caracas. And despite their reputation as a slum and the stigma that follows squatter communities, by all accounts crime is lower for the people of the Tower than it is for the citizens living on the ground.

That in itself could make for an interesting twist for a game setting. We’ve seen settings where technologically advanced people in an isolated sanctuary are safe from the chaotic world around them, but it’s less common to see a sanctuary for the poor rising above a technologically decadent civilization. It’s similar to the old Beauty & the Beast TV series, but rising up instead of burrowing below.

The full story is in The Daily Mail, complete with a brief history of the Tower, a bit about their society, and some wonderful photos.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Cool Stuff, Cyberpunk

 

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Dose of Nostalgia – Board Games

I listen to a lot of podcasts.

One of my favorites is The Dice Tower, which is the most impressive board gaming podcast available. The Dice Tower is worthy of a full review and I’ll get on that soon, but for now suffice to say that it’s a podcast that you should be listening to.

I’d qualify that by saying, “if you like board games,” but let’s be real. You’re reading my blog. It’s a given.

In their most recent episode, #350 (yes, Tom Vasel has 350 weekly podcasts about board games under his belt. The man is a machine), they did a Top Ten list of board games that were important to them from their childhood, games that had a big impact on the gamers they became.

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately and this list struck a chord, so I decided to put my own list together. This list is not in order of importance or quality, it’s just ten games that influenced my future as a gamer. Also note that I am not including role playing games in the list.

Without further ado:

1. Checkers - Checkers is one of the earliest board games I learned and was taught to me by my grandmother. Almost every visit to her house included a game of Checkers and it was something I looked forward to. It was the first abstract strategy game I learned, but more importantly it came to represent the bond that gaming can create between friends and family, and bonds like that don’t get much stronger than between a little kid and his grandmother. We played other games too, but Checkers was our favorite and I can still picture her study, her chair, and hear the sound of her clock while we played.

Good memories.

2. Chess - My grandmother taught me Checkers. Chess was the game my father taught me. Dad gave me my first set and taught me the rules. He gave me an instruction book that I greatly enjoyed, one which I have passed on to my own son. Playing Chess with my father was something I looked forward to. Beating him was an elusive goal that, when finally achieved, was a great victory.

Chess was also the first game that I spent a lot of time playing with my friends. For a while in high school we had an informal club that played every day. We were never good enough to play competitively and didn’t take it that seriously, we just enjoyed the game. For a while I collected Chess sets and I still own quite a few.

I still enjoy Chess, though I’ve gotten rather rusty. I especially enjoy historical variants of the game, my two favorites being Byzantine and Papal Chess. The first is played on a round board, setting the armies up back to back. The second includes a stationary piece in the center of the board to represent the pope and includes an alternate victory condition. Instead of checkmate, if you have a piece close enough to control the pope, without interference from an enemy piece, you win. The political commentary is not subtle and it was not appreciated by the Papacy. Apparently until the early 20th Century there was a canon law on the books that said you could be excommunicated for playing Papal Chess.

How many board games can say that?

3. Trivial Pursuit - Trivial Pursuit was the first game I remember that caused a pop culture stir. When it came out it was THE big thing and everyone had to have a copy. It’s the first game where my parents and I went over to my best friends’ house specifically so that we could all play the game together.

The rules are nothing special and there were plenty of times we dispensed with the “game”, grabbed the box, and started asking each other questions. But what Trivial Pursuit showed me was that adults could get together for gaming days too, that it wasn’t something limited to kids and that it wasn’t something I had to outgrow.

4. Stay Alive - Stay Alive is a game that I have almost never played, but I was deeply fascinated with it as a kid. For those unfamiliar, you have a grid with marbles on it and slides that control strips of plastic running down and across the grid. The strips have holes in them at different points and on your turn you pull or push one of the levers to shift the strip. If holes in the top and bottom strips line up a marble drops through the trap door. The goal is to drop all your opponents marbles first.

It’s a game of eliminating your foes by dropping them through trap doors! How cool is that!

To this day I love the concept of this game. Is it any wonder I fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons? Just imagine if you could combine Stay Alive with lead miniatures and the modular wall system from that horrible Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth game! That would be fantastic!

There is an edition of Stay Alive currently in print, but it’s lame. The classic game was on a 7×7 grid and each slider had several settings. The new version is a 5×5 grid and the sliders look limited to two or three positions. They’re asking $50 for what amounts to a travel version of the classic. I think not.

5. Scotland Yard - This was the game that introduced me to hidden movement, resource management, and asymmetrical warfare, though it would be a while before I knew those terms. All I knew was that it was different from any game I’d played before.

The game is set in London. One player is “Mr. X”, a master criminal on the run. The other players take on the roles of detectives hot on the trail. Players move through the city using cabs, subways, and buses. Mr. X’s location is revealed at different points in the game and the detectives are forced to guess or deduce which way he is going.

It took me a few tries to warm up to this game because the uneven sides seemed unfair, but once I got used to the concept I came to embrace it. The noir crime / secret agent theme of the game didn’t hurt either. It’s a genre that I love but which we don’t see very often. (Honorable mention goes to Stop Thief on this point).

6. Risk - Ahh, my first game of global conquest. These days Risk seems to be looked down on by a lot of gamers, usually after they send 20 troops against two defenders and get their butts kicked because they can’t make a good roll to save their lives. Yes that element of randomness can be frustrating, however the heroic stand is not without its historical precedents, it does lead to memorable games, and lucky dice rolls will not substitute for a sound strategy.

Australia is a death trap! 

Risk is a fine transitional game between abstracts like Chess and simulationist war games. Many better games now fill the same niche, my favorite being Shogun/Samurai Swords/Ikusa, but I’m still happy to dive into a game of Risk and watch the dice roll and I credit the game for preparing me to devour those other games when they hit the scene.

Which brings us to…

7. Conquest of the Empire - In the mid-80′s Milton Bradly launched the Gamemaster Series. Their first release was Axis & Allies, which we played the heck out of. However Axis & Allies suffers from one fatal flaw; with competent players the game always resolves itself the way that World War II actually did.

The second game in the series was Conquest of the Empire. This was like Risk in the Roman Empire but with cities, and roads, and catapults, and ships! The basic mechanics of combat were similar to Risk, but the variation of unit types and infrastructure made it a much deeper game. On top of this a rudimentary economy was put in place, causing players to make strategic decisions based on triggering inflation in the Empire.

Shogun (later published as Samurai Swords & currently as Ikusa) was the last in the Gamemaster line and was my favorite. In many ways it was a refinement of Conquest of the Empire, which did have some flaws, but Conquest was the game that raised the bar for what I wanted in that style of game.

8. Uno / Euker - I’m lumping these together. While mechanically they are different they fill the same role among my friends. Both are simple, fast, and fun social games. I discovered both when I was very young and they were games I could play with friends my age and with adults. We could take the game anywhere we went, find a corner, and deal the cards.

And we did.

All through grade school, all through high school, and all through college, Uno and Euker were not far away. They were especially popular during my high school years, when I was part of choir, drama club & stage crew, and several other groups. My junior and senior years it was a lunchtime ritual.

We were also ruthless. We used house rules in Uno that let you stack Draw cards or turn them back with Reverse and Skip cards. We accepted using signals in Euker, as long as you didn’t get caught. It became a point of pride to see who could develop the most subtle signals.

Have deck, will travel.

9. Car Wars - It was 1981 and I was part of a Dungeons & Dragons group that met at a Friendly Local Game Store. I didn’t stay in the group very long, but it was long enough for me to see this small plastic box from Steve Jackson Games sitting on the shelf.

Car Wars. This game blew my young mind. You mean I get to roar down the highway, or scream around an arena, in a car bristling with weapons? It was James Bond! It was Mad Max! It was Hot Wheels! It was…

It was awesome!

And we devoured it. The Armadillo Autoduel Arena was our favorite, but we also had the complete city of Midville for our homicidal pleasure. And when we were not playing on the table, we were playing Autoduel on the Apple II (a horrible game, BUT WE LOVED IT!).

My love of Car Wars is still there. Years later when I’d graduated from university I hosted an online Play-by-Post game. I’d receive moves from the players via email, roll the results myself, use Photoshop to update the arena map, and post it up on a website. It was a lot of work, but we loved it.

With the success of the O.G.R.E. Kickstarter, Steve Jackson Games is looking at revisiting Car Wars and I cannot wait to see the results.

Drive Offensively!

10. Illuminati - Another masterpiece from Steve Jackson Games, Illuminati came out in 1982 and has been wrecking friendships ever since.

In Illuminati each player controls a secret organization bent on covert domination of the world. Each group takes control of other organizations, who in turn take over more organizations, until you have assembled a web of power with your secret society at the center. In the meantime the other players are using their own groups to try and crush you, or aid you, but always for a price.

Most games are confrontational by their nature. Illuminati doesn’t just take this to the next level, it transcends to a higher plain of backstabbing treachery. I won’t say that Illuminati can make Diplomacy look like Candyland.

But I will infer it.

So there we go, my list of ten games that profoundly influenced me as a gamer. How about you? What games did you play that you are still playing now? Or that stick out as having an impact on the geek you’ve grown up to be? I’d love to hear about them.

fnord

 

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2014 in Gaming, Podcasts

 

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Railguns; The Future Is Now!

The US Navy has a rail gun ready for deployment!

“The U.S. Navy is planning sea trials for a weapon that can fire a low-cost, 23-pound projectile at seven times the speed of sound using electromagnetic energy, a “Star Wars” technology that will make enemies think twice, the Navy’s research chief said.”

Quote from The Raw Story news release

The Navy hopes that this technology will open up a whole line of new weapons that are cheaper and more powerful than current missile technology, for use in both offensive and defensive roles. They’re deploying the new gun on the USNS Millinocket, one of three Spearhead class ships. The Spearhead is a new design called the Joint High Speed Vessel, designed for speed and flexibility for rapid troop deployments.

An experimental gun mounted on a new class of high speed ship.

Does anyone else hear the theme from Star Blazers playing?

Check out this bad boy in action:

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2014 in Cool Stuff

 

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Experience

“In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn.”

- Octavia Butler

Various topics in the Blog-o-Sphere has me thinking about experience points and their role in gaming.

I stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons before third edition. I’ve skimmed the 3rd Ed. Players’ Handbook a few times, enough to see various familiar terms used in ways foreign to my grognardian mind, but by that time I was deep into GURPS and not looking to dive into a new D&D system.

3rd Edition, and by extension Pathfinder, is still largely a mystery to me. However having jumped back into old school gaming it’s hard not to pick up a few things about it. Most recently I’ve learned about how 3rd Edition shifts the focus of gaining experience points from recovering treasure to killing monsters.

This was a big surprise to me, as it radically changes the nature of the game. Exploration and treasure finding become secondary concerns and diplomacy can be a liability. I recently read accounts of play sessions where the Dungeon Master warned the players that they were missing out on experience points because they negotiated instead of fighting. In one case the DM went so far as to tell them the missed the chance to level up by not killing a group of NPCs.

It makes me wonder why Old School gamers are the ones with the “murder hobo” reputation.

This is anathema to me. It restricts creativity and limits the game. If I wanted that kind of experience I’d play Diablo. I’m an exploration gamer, I want to get to the bottom of the dungeon to see what’s there. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good fight, but as much as I like defeating the dragon it’s reaching the depths of his lair and finding the lost artifact that I enjoy most. If I can build alliances with other dungeon dwellers along the way, even better. This means that I find the Old School focus on gaining XP through recovering treasure to be the better way.

However…

Experience through treasure hunting is not without its flaws. This is especially true if you like to run a game that doesn’t drop huge amounts of loot on your players. I remember playing a TSR module back in high school where we found around 5,000 gp worth of treasure in a chest of drawers. This happened in one of the first chambers we entered and after killing a small group of monsters. We laughed and said it was time to head for the tavern. After all, 5,000 gold pieces will buy a lot of ale.

I try to scatter decent treasure hauls through my dungeons, saving the biggest for the deepest locations, but by and large I avoid spreading around too much wealth. When it’s easy to find jewels worth thousands in gold the allure of treasure loses its luster.

This also pushes the Dungeon Master to find ways to burn off all that wealth. Ideally this happens by letting the players set up a domain of their own, but that’s not the goal of every player. In practice it often turns into various tricks to drain the players’ purses. The lowest form of this would be the Adventurers Tax, where the king thinks it’s a good idea to demand a share of gold from a party powerful enough to brave the megadungeon.

This strategy usually ends… poorly.

AD&D’s practice of giving experience for magic items does help with this problem, allowing the DM to reward the players without overdoing monetary rewards. However the laser focus on treasure-for-experience is still a stifling element for game play and world design.

At the risk of speaking OSR-heresy, it makes me understand why some DM’s dispense with XP completely and level characters up after a set number of game sessions.

When I started back into OSR games, it was with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I decided to give out XP strictly by-the-book, but quickly found that the gains were too slow for our tastes. My players didn’t mind starting with fragile first level characters, but it got old staying there. They weren’t alone, I wanted them to tackle bigger challenges, but our game sessions were too short and the awards too small. Add to this my keeping the treasure modest and the focus on exploration and it quickly became apparent that changes needed to be made.

These days I use a subjective award system. I give XP for treasure and killing monsters, but I also give XP for completing “goals”. What constitutes a goal is also not rigidly defined, it’s not about plot points for a greater story so much as rewarding an accomplishment that means something to the character or the world. I am also happy to give XP for successful negotiations or other methods of avoiding combat, in proportion to the risk and creativity of the solution. Sneaking around an Owlbear would be worth less experience than fighting it. Negotiating with a hobgoblin war party could be as good as defeating it.

Wacky hi-jinks that leads a group of trolls into the lair of a hydra, when the players are too low in level to survive a fight with either group? That’ll earn a bonus.

Experience points are rewards that determine what your game is going to focus on. For my games I want to give rewards for the discovery of treasure, not based on its monetary value. I want to reward players for overcoming threats, not simply defeating them in combat. I want to encourage players to flesh out their characters through play and recognize them for completing tasks important to them, not for checking off specific plot points in a story I’ve written.

D20

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2014 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming

 

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