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March 9, 2017 2 comments

Buck

 

Over on Twitter, to help relieve the endless torrents of foulness gushing from Westminster and the White House, I’ve been posting pictures of what I called #OverlookedRPG products. Usually they are complete games, occasionally a supplement (I’m keeping the rules for inclusion somewhat fluid), but always something I either own or used to own and which I feel never quite achieved the success it deserved.

It’s been interesting to see how people react to the tweets. For some it’s a competition to see if I include something they’ve not heard of (it’s really not a competition; I’m making no claims to have a particularly obscure or rare collection); others express delight at seeing a favourite of theirs included after years of thinking they were the only one ever to buy a copy; and many retweet or favourite a game they’ve enjoyed. Unsurprisingly, the more obscure games, lacking that warm feeling of nostalgia, tend to receive the fewest clicks.

In all cases I’ve tried to include a link to further information and, where applicable, to somewhere you can still buy a copy (or a PDF, as is increasingly common). Sadly, licensing means that Buck Rogers (above) can only be found on the secondhand market and is unlikely to be reprinted, a pity as it’s a game with a lot going for it.

Partly to aid my fragmented memory and avoid repetition, I experimented with Storify and put all of the tweets so far in one place. You can find them here and I shall continue to add new ones after they’ve appeared on Twitter.

Have a wander down the dusty halls of gaming history and see what takes your fancy. There’s no reason for these games to be unjustly overlooked forever.

Feed the Trolls

September 21, 2016 Leave a comment

tunnels_and_trolls2_6431

Amazing the things you can find on the Internet. Idly searching led me to the startling discovery that I have a blog.

No guarantee that I’ll ever update this thing on any sort of regular basis, but on the plus side I rarely have much to say.

There are exceptions, as you can hear by listening to the recent episode of The Grognard Files podcast, in which archaeologist of the arcane Dirk the Dice digs into gaming history and chats about his finds. In this case it’s Tunnels & Trolls and Dirk asked me along to chatter enthusiastically about the game. Previous episodes, covering various RPGs,  are well worth a listen.

After Nuclear Armageddon, it’s Tri-Tac!!

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment
Tri-Tac make a pitch to the previously overlooked irradiated zombie demographic

Tri-Tac make a pitch to the previously overlooked irradiated zombie demographic

A long time ago in a magazine from far, far away I saw an advert showing a rather alarmed cartoon ghost and a man holding it at gunpoint. Above the picture, the words, “Some People Hunt Ghosts, We Exterminate Them… STALKING THE NIGHT FANTASTIC.” In another magazine was the ad shown above: “After Nuclear Armageddon, it’s Tri-Tac!! The Holocaust needn’t be dull when you have Tri-Tac games and Tri-Tac game supplements!” My attention was immediately held. Stalking the Night Fantastic? Fringeworthy? Rogue 417? What were these games with the rather serious looking themes and the cartoon adverts?

Unfortunately it took me a while to really find out, other than reading product reviews which only made me more eager to get my hands on the games. In the mid-eighties I was lucky enough to live near to a pretty good hobby store, but Tri Tac (precisely how they write their name varies, but currently it seems to have lost the hyphen) had fairly spotty distribution in the UK. I saw a copy of Stalking the Night Fantastic in the window of a Games Workshop, but when I returned to buy it the book had already sold. Eventually I made it to GenCon and met Mr Tri Tac himself, Richard Tucholka, who was selling the latest versions of the games, with full-colour covers and perfect binding rather than the saddle-stitched or comb-bound versions of a few years previously. I left with a stack of books and supplements.

Tri Tac’s system looked insanely complex at first and presentation wasn’t flashy. The functional layout and wonderful Doug Blanchard illustrations appealed to me, but even around 1985 when the ads appeared the major players in the industry had moved on and reviewers grumbled about the old-fashioned style. As for the rules, they were indeed incredibly detailed, particularly in sections of the combat system, but what was often overlooked was that the core mechanics were actually quite straightforward (generally rolling d%, which is the heart of Chaosium’s popular system) and the rules included simplified options for things like combat. A couple of very easy to use charts allowed players to tackle the less important non-player characters swiftly (“extras” or “mooks” as they tend to be termed in current games) while maintaining variety and interest (Is the soldier you just shot dead, wounded, or merely “playing possum” and waiting for you to step closer?) Tri Tac’s science-fiction game FTL: 2448 went further with the option of a one page “Hyper Light” system, boiling the mechanical parts of play into something as easy to use as anything on the market, yet the perception that Tri Tac meant unplayable complexity persisted in some quarters. Time moved on, Tri Tac faded from view, then a few years later they resurfaced, selling PDF versions of the old games. Unfortunately, the only option for buying them was to order a CD-ROM and have it shipped, which made things a little expensive here in the UK.

Now things have moved forward. Tri Tac is offering the option of directly downloading their games; and there are new titles in the catalogue, as well as reworked versions of the old, sprucing up the presentation and adding more than a dash of colour. Which brings us, gentle reader, to a review:

2014-09-15 14.29.19

Weirdzone, printed and spiral bound from the Tri Tac PDF

 Recently I downloaded a copy of Weirdzone, which has an unusual history in that it was released as a convention item in 1985 and disappeared until this 2010 PDF version. According to the PDF there were only ten (or a dozen… I’ll be returning to this) copies made and although the original cover shows it labelled as a Fringeworthy product, Tri Tac’s game of interdimensional exploration, it was never expanded and printed as a full-blown Fringeworthy adventure or supplement. This newish PDF, as with most of the products coming from Tri Tac at the moment, is designed to be used with whatever your favourite RPG is. The only mechanical rules included are the 1 to 100 charts covering encounters, salvage and that sort of thing, able to be used without modification regardless of the rules system you prefer: it’s largely generic.

2014-09-15 14.29.03

What you get: Weirdzone is a full colour PDF running to 24 pages of gaming material, not counting the covers, credits, copyright details, record sheets and the like. Generally the layout is two columns of text in a nicely clear font, sometimes a single main column and then a sidebar. In common with many earlier Tri Tac products Weirdzone includes short examples and comments from in-game characters, in this case a farmer called Osgood Brown and his robot named Pickles. There’s plenty of humour (and indeed Weirdzone is more overtly a humorous setting than most Tri Tac games, which tend to have something of the air of a Roger Moore Bond film or even early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic about them, played straight with the occasional wink but some really crazy moments. Don’t go into one of these games expecting everything to be utterly po-faced, but on the other hand don’t plan on thigh-slapping high jinks and constant pratfalls either. Brief designer’s notes top and tail the text and there are a couple of short scenarios and adventure ideas. The bulk of the book covers the setting concept, encounter tables and a number of sample buildings with basic maps showing their layout. This is very much a book that sets up the premise, explains the “ground rules” of the setting and then gives you tons of stuff that might happen, but it doesn’t plot everything out for you. That’s a strength for some, a weakness to others.

What it’s about: The central concept of Weirdzone is that a building your character is in, along with a circle of land roughly a hundred feet or more around it, is suddenly wrenched from the Earth and dropped into “Weird Space,” a strange dimension where the physical rules you’re used to clearly do not apply. In effect, your house has just become a dimension-hopping spaceship. After a variable amount of time the house and grounds – known as the Zero Plot – appear in a new location. It could be an alien world, an Earth populated by dinosaurs, a land where machines have risen up against people, or any other cool, amusing or bonkers idea that comes to you in an afternoon reverie or from an episode of the Twilight Zone. The book has plenty of ideas, but it also fits smoothly with the Fringeworthy game and particularly its Portals supplements, which contain hundreds of world ideas from the absurd to the eerie to the desperately perilous.

What’s bad: Okay then, let’s look at a few areas where Weirdzone has problems, which I’m doing before the good points because I very much like this book and don’t want you to go away with the bad stuff fresh in your mind. It opens with a (mercifully brief) quote from Ayn Rand. Editing and proofreading is poor. Shocking in places. This includes referring to the book as “A publication of Tri Tac Games, Booka & Graphics, ” which is embarrassingly sloppy, and describing it on the back cover as having 54 pages, which is nearly twenty more than it does have; the back cover blurb also mentions the original run of the supplement being 10 copies, whereas the notes inside say that there were a dozen. Dropped letters, typos and the like are sprinkled liberally throughout the text. Most of these are quite minor, trivial indeed, but it’s impossible not to have one’s opinion of the product affected by this apparent lack of care. Tri Tac have always been very good at providing worksheets and charts for their games, but the ones in Weirdzone are not their best. In part that’s because this is a generic product and so the character sheet (for example) cannot be tailored to particular rules, but the inventory sheet is effectively a piece of lined paper with a low resolution surround to make it look like it’s on a clipboard, while the character and zero plot sheets have their otherwise blank boxes filled with swirly colours, which does nothing aside from getting in the way of printing it cleanly. Parts of the text appear to have been cut and pasted from other Tri Tac products, such as the description of encountering a flock of birds in Weird Space which looks to have been only slightly edited from its appearance in the Hardwired Hinterland setting, which features adventures involving vintage aeroplanes; either that or it’s common in Michigan to fit propellers to houses… Again, it’s relatively minor stuff and it doesn’t wreck the utility of the book, but it is infuriatingly sloppy. You might also notice reuse of some of the illustrations, both within this book and with others. Finally, Tri Tac PDFs are a little pricey compared to some similar products, with the relatively short Weirdzone currently selling for $14.95.

What’s good: Right, let us put such negative observations behind us. The concept won’t appeal to everyone, but if the idea of suddenly finding yourself travelling to other lands in your house, improvising solutions to the problems that causes (such as immediately severing the utilities) and encountering wildly varying situations every time you play, sounds at all like fun to you then pick up a copy of Weirdzone. It’s concise, clear and exceptionally simple to use. The book addresses some of the important issues the players will need to consider, while the inventive and well organised charts of encounters and the like contain enough variety to drive your adventures for years. You can shift the tone from wacky all the way to desperate survival horror without throwing out any of the material. The photo illustrations are generally very good and I’ve had no problems viewing the PDF on a PC or a Nook HD tablet with its 7″ screen, as well as the printout shown in the pictures above. The charts cover all sorts of situations and can add everything from an amusing encounter to a truly serious problem, ensuring that you’ll never be short of ideas or interest when running the game. The core concept and the rules that govern how the strangeness of Weird Space affects your “ship” are well thought out and clearly explained. The book may indeed contain “zero plot” but it’s impossible not to see how exciting and interesting situations will arise from this conceit. Because the Zero Plot travels again after a period of time you can easily keep things fresh or leave behind an adventure that wasn’t suiting the group, making Weirdzone a good way of trying out new settings. And although it’s presented without a system of its own, Weirdzone doesn’t lack structure and direction.

In the end, this is a gaming product I’m very happy to own. Brimming with ideas and full of potential for campaign play, it will also be pounced on by referees as a source of instant adventure ideas for those occasions when you want to play something right now but there’s nothing prepared. Compared to some other gaming PDFs the price is perhaps a little high (although there’s an argument that many PDFs are somewhat undervalued), but taken on its own merits Weirdzone is worth it.

Too Many Games, My Dear Mozart

June 17, 2013 2 comments
There are, inevitably, many more.

There are, inevitably, many more. Shelves of the damn things.

There’s an old line about the Golden Age of Science Fiction, claiming that it’s not the 1950s as is usually stated but is in fact about twelve. It rings worryingly true, not least for me since when I was twelve I happened to be reading an awful lot of science fiction from the 1950s. My childhood was a period of odd resurrections and reprints, with the cinematic serial ancestors of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark being shown on the telly, anthologies collecting old horror and sci-fi stories being sold by places as unlikely as Marks & Spencer, and American comics appearing in the UK years after their original publication and often in a different form, which meant that I discovered Neal Adams’ Batman strips more than a decade after they had initially appeared. Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen a problem with the role-playing game Traveller, which is often mocked for its outdated future technologies: in my head, science fiction is “Buster” Crabbe, Cyril M. Kornbluth and Forbidden Planet. My dreams of the future have always raced recklessly forward into the past.

Every so often, on one Internet forum or another, someone will ask about the Golden Age of Role-playing Games, the assumption being that there must actually be such a thing, one wonderful moment when everything fell perfectly together before the talons of corporate greed tore the heart out of it all. Such a thing is impossible to consider without admitting to nostalgia, because the greatest game you ever played is almost certain to be a game you haven’t actually touched for years. Looking through some of my old favourites recently I was particularly struck by the thought that I must have had a phenomenal tolerance for densely typed, poorly written, overly complicated rules back then… or maybe I didn’t actually play them as “by the book” as I’d like to believe. The notion of corporate greed spoiling it for everyone is laughable, too, particularly if you take the time to look through old magazines and fanzines from the early days as the gaming hobby started to become a viable business opportunity. People were complaining about it back in the mid-seventies just as they complain about it now and will continue to complain about it.

My Golden Age is probably a broad swathe of  the 1980s. For every game that turned out yet another Dungeons & Dragons clone, mistaking more character classes and more spells for innovation, there was something else that was genuinely inventive, not least because the hobby was still young enough that not everything had been done. If you wanted to play a game about swashbuckling Musketeers then you could find one, but you couldn’t find half a dozen; and on the whole playing a different genre meant buying a different game. The marketplace was busy but not as crowded as you might expect, in part because every game tended to appeal to its own niche audience and also because regional distribution meant that not every game was equally available in all areas. UK players had a strong early liking for RuneQuest, which vied much more closely with Dungeons & Dragons here for a time than it did in America; the fact that Games Workshop, rapidly becoming the main source of such games in the UK, printed copies of RuneQuest here and supported it strongly in their White Dwarf magazine definitely influenced that. Ah, White Dwarf… two words conjuring instant nostalgia for Gamers of a Certain Age, who will inevitably adopt a soft-focus gaze over your shoulder and wistfully announce that they remember back when it were a proper magazine, lad…

Games sold in (relatively) huge numbers in the 1980s. They began to appear in real shops, actual toy shops and department stores, not just the strange, often rather intimidating (but now fondly remembered and sadly missed) specialist hobby shops where the staff were as likely to insult your choice of purchase and mock your lack of gaming experience as they were to actually take your money. Practically any idiot with a typewriter and money for printing and a couple of magazine adverts could sell respectable numbers of supplements and original games in the early part of the decade, when gamers were desperately hungry for new products and were quite prepared to buy something because it sounded interesting even if it didn’t technically fit the rules they used. Perhaps the strongest reason to consider it a Golden Age, if we must pin that badge on any moment in history, is that more of us were playing the same games back then. Typically you’d have your “go to” game, then several others you enjoyed or at least vaguely understood. Finding other players in that pre-Internet world wasn’t necessarily easy, but when you did find them the common ground was broad and firm. Maybe it was just the sheer relief at encountering another gamer, forcing people to adapt. For all of the petty arguments about which was the better game (which have not gone away, nor even abated) it was easy to have a broad understanding of the field and find fellow fans of Bushido or Champions or whatever because everyone was choosing their games from a smaller pool, usually whatever the local shop happened to stock. Every now and then someone would produce a game they’d sent away for, something exotic and foreign, shipped from America; I remember struggling to make space in my luggage when I returned from the USA so that I could fit in a load of Tékumel books I’d bought.

Anyone can publish an RPG now. It’ll quite probably look more professional, have better art, be better printed and maybe even have better rules than most of the stuff we lusted after in the 80s. It may also not exist as a physical item until someone buys it, thanks to PDFs and print on demand, reducing the financial risk for the producer. For someone wanting to make their own game this is the golden age, with Kickstarter campaigns, electronic distribution, easy communication and advanced publishing tools available cheaply. Except they’ll be lucky to sell a few hundred copies. The market died, battered by video games and the Internet, lost in time.

So the field of play is very different than it was, endlessly fractured into smaller and smaller, more specific, more focussed games, drilling down on ever more obscure topics like a ludographic Mandelbrot Set. A great many games out there now aren’t intended to be played in the ongoing, expansive manner of the old RPGs. Many others are remarkably cheap, many are free. There’s a game for every topic you can think of, pretty much, and the days when my own Metaphysical Ninja Maniac Chainsaw Vitamin Junkies was considered wacky are long gone. My shelves creak and groan under too many games as it is, I don’t actually need more; owning another game won’t actually mean I play more often. The market as it stands isn’t trying to woo me, because I’ve long passed that point where I look at a new product and think yes, that looks like fun, but I can already do that with my old copy of Dream Park. The occasional nostalgia release – limited anniversary reprints, leatherette editions – sparks interest, but there’s usually a good reason why I got rid of the original twenty years ago.

I’m looking at those tired shelves, selecting something to run for some friends in a couple of months. Something new, fresh, exciting! Something we never get to play! Or… or how about something we love, something we come back to because it does the job and we enjoy it? Hand me down the Old Faithful, Mozart, and put aside the distracting shinies.

Tales of the Staggering Zombie

January 6, 2013 10 comments
Mightier than the sword.

Mightier than the sword.

“Frankly, if I had to run a fantasy campaign today, I’d probably use the Tunnels & Trolls rules. Yes, they’re dumb, but they’re simple, and they’re adequate to my needs.” – Greg Costikyan, Letters, Space Gamer #76.

An old friend of mine is getting a facelift. More than that, really: major surgery, practically Six Million Dollar Man stuff. Mind you, I can’t say it isn’t needed… he’s not as young as he used to be and you can’t live on past glories forever. He was never rolling in cash, though, so it isn’t a surprise to see that he’s asking his friends to help with the financial side of things.

Yes, Tunnels and Trolls is on Kickstarter, gearing up for a new edition – a deluxe edition, no less! – of the venerable role-playing game. It’s always been something of an oddity, not the first such game (it’s generally believed to be the second) and never the biggest nor the most successful. It was the target of considerable snobbery and derision at times, seen by Dungeons & Dragons fans as a derivative upstart and a silly one to boot. For many people the famously light-hearted names of the magic spells in T&T remain an insurmountable obstacle: a healing spell called Poor Baby; a sleep spell called Rock-a-Bye; most famously, a “bolt of lightning”-type spell called Take That, You Fiend; and then there was the one to which I could see some valid objection, a spell to enslave the will of a foe called Yassa-Massa. Even the slightest appearance of a sense of humour in a game seemed to be taken by some gamers as personal mockery, which might not be surprising when you consider that the most enthusiastic players tended to be teenage boys, for who something like Dungeons & Dragons offered a hugely important channel for creativity and personal empowerment. We live in a world where people get into lethal fights about football teams, so a few noses put out of joint by choice of game is certainly par for the course.

TandT rulebooks 1

Perhaps the oddest thing about Tunnels and Trolls is the most easily overlooked: it’s still here. Publisher Flying Buffalo, primarily a company running Play By Mail games, looked into selling off a lot of their properties in the mid-1980s, but T&T was apparently contractually tangled, so they kept selling the old stock, producing a slowly dwindling range of supplements, periodically reprinting books as things sold out and money became available. It ticked along like that for years, but it’s likely that only a small company such as FBI, reliant on other parts of the business more than this one particular game, would have kept T&T around at all. Tunnels and Trolls virtually slipped through the cracks of commercial good sense, surviving quietly, not making a fuss. And then along came the British and the Japanese.

There was a burst of interest around 1986. Corgi Books, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, put out modestly bowdlerised versions of the rules and some solo adventures, riding the back of the enormously successful Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (which themselves owed a considerable debt to the style, simplicity and format of the T&T solo adventures) and sporting covers by Josh Kirby, at that time responsible for the covers of the hugely successful Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. Existing T&T fans grumbled about the removal of art by Liz Danforth, for many an integral part of the game, but there’s no denying that the familiar Kirby style (the red book in the photo above) and paperback format backed by a major publisher helped to spread T&T beyond the usual hobby shops. There had been British versions of the game before, published by Chris Harvey, which tended to be physically smaller than the American game but otherwise almost identical, and it seemed to me back then that the British gamers were a little more comfortable with the whimsical and silly side of T&T, although it never kicked D&D off the gaming throne here either. The game was published in translation in Japan (also using the Kirby cover, I believe) to an enthusiastic reception.

And then it all sort of faded again. In his ‘zine TnT the game’s designer, Ken St. Andre, commented that although the zombie may stagger on, T&T was dead. I started writing and illustrating a fanzine of my own due to that remark, Tales of the Staggering Zombie, which like many such projects never went anywhere, but I kept playing T&T, running games of it for kids at summer camp, giving away quite a number of copies to enthusiastic new players (thankfully Rick Loomis at Flying Buffalo very generously sent me some publications for the kids at one camp, where I was using T&T with campers whose native language was not English – they grasped it incredibly easily – as my evangelism was getting expensive) who loved the ease of play and sense of fun as much as I did. A fantasy world took shape in my head, not the meticulously mapped and lovingly detailed creations of many gamers but something tailored to my style of games run with little preparation. The city of Drollport, with its shifting geography due to my habit of forgetting quite where everything was supposed to be, on the shore of a floating island drifting across a sea connecting all times and places, a setting full of wonder, excitement and horrendously bad puns. One of these days I should probably write it all down.

Mike Stackpole, an unnamed geek and Ken St. Andre at an Arizona restaurant.

Mike Stackpole, an unnamed geek and Ken St. Andre at an Arizona restaurant.

When I was eighteen I wrote to Ken St. Andre about his ‘zine, which I’d seen reviewed in the Space Gamer, one of those wonderful gaming publications now sadly lost to another age. Ken graciously replied, saying that he had largely stopped writing it but if I was ever in the area he would be happy to let me have a few back issues. In the area… hm, as it happened I was going to be working at a summer camp in America that year (a fairly major adventure for me). The fact that the camp was near to Attica, New York, and Ken was in Phoenix, Arizona, more than 2200 miles to the south-west, didn’t seem to be too much of an obstacle: I caught a bus.

Let’s just skip the horrors of spending a couple of days on a Greyhound bus, shall we? Thanks.

So I made it to Phoenix, was put up by the wonderful family of gamer Mike Duckett, attended CopperCon and met all sorts of people involved with T&T, science-fiction and fantasy, fandom and gaming generally. They were generous and fascinating and humble and enthusiastic, because gamers usually are. And then I had to get back on the bus because my flight was leaving from New York… I’m going to skip that bit too.

Tunnels and Trolls has had its ups and downs since then. The Internet allowed fans to connect more easily and to play games via email. One such game, run by Ken and set in his famously fiendish dungeon of Gristlegrim, featured a character I named Big Jack Brass. Ken wrote up the adventure afterwards and you can still read it online. A sadly demoralising turn of events saw an apparently enthusiastic supporter of T&T turn pirate, publishing anything he could get his hands on despite having no rights to do so, even going so far as to steal artwork from non-T&T sources, which unfortunately became the first thing many younger gamers ever heard about T&T. Yet, things were stirring elsewhere. New publications started to crawl into the light.

And now the old gang is back together. Many of the original writers and artists who made T&T what it was in the ’70s and ’80s have been working on a new edition, bringing the presentation and content up to speed with the expectations of a 21st Century audience. As I write this the Kickstarter is a couple of days old and more than five hundred people have pledged over $34,000 to the project, a total which is likely to keep rising with a month to go.

Do I need a new edition of T&T? Strictly speaking, no, of course I don’t. There’s no reason why the game I’ve played since the 1980s is suddenly not going to work any more. The existence of the new edition, though, is hugely important to me even though I’m not involved with it. Like so many people I have wonderful memories of this game, of people I met and times we shared because of it. On Internet forums people are actually discussing T&T again, with curiosity and interest rather than simply nostalgia. The old guard gets to have a lovely new edition of the rules (and all manner of tchotchkes to go with it, if they want to splash out on the higher Kickstarter rewards), but from my perspective the Kickstarter does two more important things: the surge of giddy support lets the people behind it know that there are hundreds of gamers out there who absolutely love and cherish the work they did and are doing now; and the new edition is something younger gamers can engage with more easily than something from 1979. It’s time to share the wonder and let others build their own magical memories.

Selling the family silver

March 22, 2012 2 comments

Dice not included. Except when they are.

Surprisingly with a title like that, this is not a post about the budget. Nor is it a post about the family silver, since we don’t actually have any. Mind you, after that budget announcement the nation as a whole doesn’t have any either (ooh! politics!)

No, Gentle Reader, this is a post about freeing up some space, trying to get a little (probably very little) cash and taking a look at a hobby I’ve enjoyed for*cough* thirty years or so.

Games, role-playing games in particular, are something I’ve loved since I stumbled across confusing references to them as a child. Back then, with no Internet and limited understanding of “hobby” games in the media, deciphering what something like Dungeons & Dragons was and how to play it (indeed, how to actually find a copy to buy) was not an easy task, as I’ve briefly mentioned before. It’s no accident that the bulk of players who discovered the games back then tended to do so because of an older sibling or friend – or friend of a friend – who had themselves stumbled across D&D in some odd, random way. Since the games are essentially social activities – direct, face-to-face across a table social activities – it’s understandable and appropriate that word of mouth was the main way in which news of them spread at first. This was made all the more important given that the first games of this type were rarely written clearly and were particularly bad when it came to explaining how to actually play them. The concept may have been brilliant, but trying to convey just what it was and how to do anything with it was tricky: “It’s like a boardgame… except there’s no board and you can do anything you want… Except there are rules, so you can’t just make it up… Well, you do make it up but…” and so forth.

Like any number of kids who loved to read (mostly science-fiction and fantasy for me at that time) role-playing games were instantly attention-grabbing. Creative, exciting and fairly cheap, things started to make a lot more sense once I heard about the upcoming Fighting Fantasy games from a newspaper article and fantasy games became a pretty big craze for a time. I bought several, along with numerous books about them such as the reassuringly directly-titled What is Dungeons & Dragons? Over the years I’ve bought more and sold many, although a fondness for the history of the hobby means that I kept all of those “how to” and “what is” books.

These days I still play the games, face-to-face with friends as a social activity after work and more recently via web-based video through Google+. I can only play so many, though; and a good number of the games I’ve picked up over the years either don’t suit me or are simply never going to make it onto the schedule. It’s a slightly awkward point as far as the business of making RPGs goes, but if you buy one that you like then you need never buy another; indeed, you need never buy any extras for it either. A game like Marcus L. Rowland’s wonderful Forgotten Futures, based on the “scientific romances” which preceded the modern form of science-fiction, not only has enough material provided with it to last a lifetime, but it also has a virtually inexhaustible supply of adventure ideas and background details available in the form of the original stories (often free to obtain electronically) and period magazine articles. The Internet makes discovering such things easy and more or less free, so how many new games and supplements are really needed?

All of which brings me to a hard look at the books and boxes on my shelves and a long overdue paring down to the games I actually get to play or find particularly enjoyable to read. A few things have found their way onto eBay already, but in the case of a couple of rare items and a number of quite recent titles I’m not sure that’s the best way of selling the surplus. For now I’m popping a list of some of the books I intend to sell here, partly as a way for me to organise myself and partly to see if anyone has any good ideas for what to do with them or would like to make me an offer for one or more. Links provided for more information, where possible:

Obviously many of those links lead to the publisher websites where the games are offered for sale. If you’d rather buy new than used then I doubt they’d mind. I might cry just a very little, though.

A couple of other games are trickier, since they are rarer and reasonably valuable in these editions, but not necessarily hotly sought-after. If you can find a copy then the price is high, but an eBay listing isn’t likely to attract many bids unless I’m very lucky:

  • High Fantasy, along with its three supplements and adventures: Adventures in High Fantasy; Wizards & Warriors; Goldchester.
  • The Book of Mars: a combat system, 1st complete edition.

And if I do manage to sell anything then I promise not to blow all the cash on games.

Summon Elemental

October 30, 2011 1 comment

Appropriately grainy semi-Victorian photograph

Monday in Manchester and the start of a strangely steampunk week for me. Despite a reputation as a Victorian a century or so out of his time I have never actually had anything to do with the steampunk crowd, a generally charming and usually very enthusiastic bunch  taken to cleverly constructing outré outfits and exotic sci-fi machinery from old clockwork and machine parts. That’s not to say that steampunk is unknown to me; indeed, I’m a keen reader and great admirer of the work of K. W. Jeter (among others), the man who is credited with coining the term back in the eighties, and I’ve played and run many role-playing games such as Victoriana and Space: 1889 which have steampunk themes or elements. What I’ve not done is either dress up in Victorian togs and attended a gig in a Manchester pub, nor spent an evening sporting cavalry whiskers and play-acting my way through a murder mystery with friends.

Until now.

The week began, as I was saying, with the alleged first Manchester gig for bright Brighton peer Professor Elemental, billed as “Chap-hop’s enfant terrible” on the flyers, at the Lass o’ Gowrie pub. A small, indeed compact, venue but one which won me over instantly by the simple expedient of having Timothy Taylor’s Landlord on tap. The free WiFi was a nice touch, as well. Long a BBC haunt, it now seems to be positioned increasingly as a student and entertainment venue. I didn’t dress in a steampunk or Victorian style, sporting nothing more exotic than a sports jacket and fairly subdued cravat, but there were steampunks aplenty in attendance. The evening began with Freestyle Fictionary, a sort of performance word game group. I’d seen nothing like them before but gathered as things progressed that they represented in some ways the very roots of rap, flinging verse and rhyme back and forth in an improvised verbal battle. Part way through the performance The Lovely Emma directed my attention to the anonymous figure at the bar: Professor Elemental himself in his Clark Kent persona. Fearlessly interrupting his drinks-buying endeavours, and thus keeping his friends from their beers for a good ten minutes, I wandered over and said hello. We had, I should say, communicated occasionally before, as the good Professor was generous enough to allow the use of several of his tunes on the podcasts I produce for RPGMP3.com which led to periodic Twitter conversations, so there was at least recognition there to offset the inconvenience of being kept from his pint.

The show itself was delightful, once the main attraction had hurriedly changed into his pith helmet and safari ensemble, with an enthusiastic and appreciative crowd lapping up the performance as Professor E. effortlessly glided from playful banter to rapping about tea, village fetes, battling other performers (no love for “Mr B. the Gentleman Rhymer” from this audience) and performing awful experiments on animals. Most of the material was familiar to the fans – clearly so, given how easily they sang along and jumped in at the appropriate places – but there was one new piece; and that was something quite revealing. Offered the choice of a song about cutting the heads off animals and putting them onto other animals (cheering), one about the Quest for the Golden Frog (louder cheering) and something new and unfamiliar about men who dress up as owls and hunt in the night (almost desperate cheering) the audience’s preference was clear. Instead of a rap with the familiar, quirky hip-hop backing music of the rest of his work this one was clearly incomplete and was presented with no backing track, just a man speaking to the spellbound crowd. The piece itself was charming, although very much in keeping with his more familiar recent work, but what struck me particularly was what happened when it was offered in this raw, stripped-down form. The heart was revealed, the simple, rather beautiful core of the evening, as an amusing, light piece that will no doubt fit very well with the other catchy songs on a future album was instead given to us as poetry, quite enthralling in its simplicity. Behind every one of his songs the same poetic heart lies, waiting to be noticed once you’ve stopped smiling and tapping your feet.

The week ended with something far from simple, a convoluted murder mystery set aboard the airship Orient Express V. Despite having worked both designing and selling games in the past I had not previously played one of these murder mystery party affairs. This time the theme was steampunk, a fine excuse for a group of friends to cobble together  some vaguely Victorian outfits (authenticity is excused, one of the beauties of steampunk over re-enactment, as there never was a “steampunk” period) and spend the evening trying to unravel the crime and catch the killer, a task made increasingly complicated as we worked our way through the wine cellar.
So it was that I bought a cheap bowler hat from eBay, raided my wardrobe and trimmed my beard into a style inspired by Nigel Green in Zulu, with a distinct dash of Malcolm McDowell as Flashman. Quite what reaction I’ll get at work tomorrow is anyone’s guess, but I’m sticking with it until the chin-whiskers grow back. Great fun. Anyone but me could have done it, although since I was playing a government agent on undercover assignment to protect one of the other passengers my actions were suspicious enough to raise eyebrows among the other guests. In the end the culprit turned out to be none other than The Lovely Emma. We returned home together, with me feeling somewhat nervous to be sharing a house with such a ruthless murderess.

A delightful bunch, entirely trustworthy...