Sunday, August 25, 2019

Summary of Experience with RPGs, 1974-1977

I have long been a huge fan of John H. Kim's RPG Encyclopedia, and more for its chronological index. I have tried, for some years now, to play all the earliest RPGs that were ever out there, with mixed results.

I thought I should finally share some of those results...

Played (twice). A wargame, not a RPG.
Dungeons & Dragons (1st ed)
Played and ran, though seldom without substantial house rules.  Good, if uneven, and needs much house ruling to fill gaps.
[Warriors of Mars is not listed, but is a wargame closer to a RPG than Chainmail]
Boot Hill (1st ed)
Played (once). More of a wargame, for one-on-one dueling.
The Complete Warlock
Only 1978 version available.
Empire of the Petal Throne
Ran (twice). Conceptually fascinating, an interesting D&D variant with good campaign ideas, but better for raiding for ideas than playing. I’m not a fan of the campaign setting, but I admire its attention to detail. I blogged about my first solo experience with EPT/Tekumel, playing a randomly rolled, seven years ago!
En Garde (1st ed)
Unavailable, but looks more like a wargame for one-on-one dueling.
Tunnels & Trolls (1st ed.)
Ran (once). Meant as an improvement on D&D, but wildly eccentric and no real improvement.
Bunnies & Burrows (1st ed.)
Ran (twice). A fun, but challenging to play game; not having opposable thumbs is very limiting on a player-character. Never had much support material; plan on watching Frog God Games for their relaunch and new B&B adventures.
Knights of the Round Table
Metamorphosis Alpha
Played (twice), ran (once). At 36 pages, more of a rough draft of a great idea for a RPG, more fully realized in Gamma World.
Monsters! Monsters!
Ran (once). Tunnels & Trolls, but played from the monster’s perspective. Ingenious, but as flawed as T&T, and handled much better years later by Kobolds Ate My Baby!
Unavailable, but from what I’ve read, it is a strange animal, more like a wargame with exploration as the goal instead of war.
Bifrost (1st ed)
Chivalry & Sorcery (1st ed)
Unavailable – but skimmed the 2000 Red Book, which claims to be 1st ed unchanged, but edited and compiled into one book. If so, then 338 pages is twice too long and complex for a core rulebook for my liking. Pendragon will, later, do feudal campaigns and unusual time-keeping campaigns better. It does do Tolkein’s “demi-humans” better than D&D. I rolled up a random character that was pretty much unplayable (a bungling, weak dimwit, but with stunning good looks and a poetic voice!). Granted, my next character could have been amazing, but not a promising start.
Dungeons & Dragons (2nd ed/Holmes ed)
Ran. Though only a basic book (levels 1-3) was ever produced, it is a mostly complete game unto itself, at times both crude and elegant, and possibly the most streamlined version of D&D ever.
En Garde (2nd ed)
Unavailable, not sure what the differences are to 1st ed.
The Fantasy Trip (1st ed)
Unavailable, but coming back through Kickstarter.
Flash Gordon and the Warriors of Mongo
Unavailable, but from what I’ve read, it was more like a board game, with a map instead of a board, and simple combat rules tacked onto it.
Space Quest
Unavailable, but was apparently D&D reskinned as science fiction.
Star Patrol
Unavailable, but apparently another reskinning of D&D as science fiction.
Superhero 2044
Only read it, but can't imagine how you can play this as a complete game without substantial house rulings. It seems more like a supplement meant to be tacked onto another game.
I have one of the original booklets now, but don't own the first book with character creation rules in it, so I've never been able to tackle playing it. I've skimmed the rules and tried making a character once, but found the character gen rules too pro-military for my liking. I wanted to make a character who dodged the draft, and wound up with no skills because, apparently, anyone who doesn't serve in the armed forces is a no-talent loser.
Tunnels & Trolls (2nd ed)
Unavailable, but I understand it expanded on 1st edition, rather than replacing anything.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Top ten comic book writers and artists

Comic Book Resources ( asked for comic book fans to compile their own top ten lists of comic book writers and artists to make up a top 100 list, and I dreaded seeing the results. So many readers have such short memories, many would think modern writers and artists rank in those top 10’s. I reject that thinking; when you stand on the shoulders of giants, the best artists are the ones who’s shoulders you’re standing on. They are the ones who broke all the ground and made possible everything that came after. So, to represent, I voted and went as Old School as it gets. This is the tier of writers and artists where, to rank them, you don’t ask questions like “How many good stories have they done?” but “How many genres have they defined or invented?”

This is a different list than what I would call my top ten *personal favorite* comic book writers/artists. There is no sign, for instance, of John Byrne here, as brilliant as he was at combining Kirby with superior draftsmanship. All modern artists have either combined what the old masters gave them or tweaked it in some way.



10. Stan Lee. The man who wrote comic books directly to you, with an immediacy of audience connection unheard of in comic books before.

9. Robert Kanigher. War comics had been around as long as there had been comic books, but Kanigher brought them poignancy and a strong anti-war message.

8. Carl Barks. The man took an intrinsically silly group of characters and fashioned a serious universe for them to live in.

7. Harvey Kurtzman. Deserves to be remembered for Two-Fisted Tales, but changed the world of satire forever with Mad magazine.

6. Will Eisner. There almost from the beginning, Eisner was a pro when the other greats were still finding their legs. Hawks of the Seas and Espionage were excellent, but The Spirit was a masterpiece of the short form.

5. Don Cameron. The man who had to follow both Siegel on Superman and Finger on Batman, Cameron didn’t flinch and met the challenge with stories like “There Will Always Be a Superman” and “Twenty Ton Robbery.”

4. Bill Parker. Magic flowed from his pen when he created Captain Marvel and crafted the first 15 Captain Marvel adventures for Whiz Comics.

3. Gardner Fox. Although deserving to be recognized for his prodigious output alone, with the Justice Society of America he created the concept of a superhero team and the first organization of fictional heroes since King Arthur’s knights.  

2. Bill Finger. Prolific ghost writer for Bob Kane, Finger is responsible for much of what we consider iconic about the Batman mythos, in addition to having written some of the best of the early Batman stories, like “The Three Racketeers.”

1. Jerry Siegel. Forever to be enshrined as the greatest comic book writer of all time for creating Superman, by doing so inventing the superhero genre itself, and by virtue of the superhero genre sustaining the entire comic book industry for every generation since.   


10. Carl Barks. Though he made it look easy, Barks was an early genius at storytelling and continuity.

9. Joe Kubert. One of the best of the war comic artists, but more importantly trained generations of comic book artists through his school.

8. Mort Meskin. Most other golden age comic book art looked stiff and motionless compared to Meskin, who brought a sense of animation to everything he did.

7. Frank Frazetta. Not a comic book artist for very long in his career, but maaaan, it was gorgeous stuff!

6. Gil Kane. So gifted that he was ghosting Kirby while still a teenager, Kane developed a style with as much dynamism as Kirby, but more smooth and less bombastic.

5. Lou Fine. Perhaps the second most beautiful art of the golden age after Frazetta, Fine combined realistic illustration with comic book art more than any other artist of his time other than Raboy (who was so slow that he often had to swipe himself).

4. C.C. Beck. Although I’m partial to his slightly more realistic early work, Beck developed a style that was just the right balance between serious and cartoony that was accessible to all ages, leading to the runaway success of Captain Marvel in the 1940s.

3. Will Eisner. It’s almost impossible to separate out Eisner the artist from Eisner the writer. He had Barks’ gift for storytelling, but further was a genius at composition, with his inventive page layouts being one of the things he’s best remembered for.

2. Jack Kirby. If not for his tin ear for dialogue, he would belong on the writers’ side top 10 too. The man reinvented the superhero comic, reinvented the kid adventure genre, helped invent the romance genre, and created a significant portion of the Marvel Universe himself. Almost frighteningly prolific and endlessly influential, Kirby’s legacy is still felt on every comic book page today.

1. Joe Shuster. Although considered crude by today’s standards, there is a raw primal energy to Shuster’s sketchy art that was perfect for Superman. And, of course, he deserves to be immortalized for the same reasons as Siegel in the writers’ category. Without them, the comic book industry would have never amounted to more than a passing fad in repackaging comic strips.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

My Four Landmark Campaigns

It occurred to me today that I've been a RPG gamer for 36 non-stop years now. GenCon, a four-day gaming convention, is going on right now. If I had my own four-day gaming convention, each day dedicated to nine years of the time I've been a gamer, what games would be played on each day?

My first nine years were 1982-1991. During this time, campaign play was almost unheard of in our gaming community until 1988, with most of us only played one-off published modules.  My first attempt at a campaign in 1990 was really just the Fate of Istus super-module (with some Dungeon magazine filler stringing Rookroost and Rel Mord together) -- and it was not until 1991 when I started my first ambitious campaigns, the City of Greyhawk (AD&D 1st ed.) campaign and the Wimpy Tales (Marvel Super Heroes) campaign. Neither was very long (the City of Greyhawk campaign never saw anyone rise past 4th level), but they were elaborate in a way I've seldom had time to duplicate since.

The Wimpy Tales campaign (for at least the first two sessions) had their own comic book covers I drew. It avoided the pitfalls of the MSH rules for higher-powered characters by keeping everything, well, wimpy. It studiously clung to comic book continuity, while its lighthearted tone (until the Maggia scenario that killed the campaign) made it accessible to players who didn't read the comic books.

But even more ambitious was the City of Greyhawk campaign. Though the meat of the campaign was the City of Greyhawk boxed set combined with the adventure super-module Greyhawk Ruins, and a smattering of Dungeon magazine offerings for side quests, what made this campaign special was that it was really five different solo campaigns, each with its own cast of characters and ongoing plots, and the player-characters only crossed over and teamed up as needed. We had some pairings on some adventures, and a single case when three players all teamed up together. There were ambitious storylines, like the wild magic surge/time travel adventure that allowed Perrin the elven thief to confront the killer of his parents, too late to save them. I have never had the time to achieve that level of complexity since.

My next nine years were 1991-2000.  During this time I ran Forgettable Realms, a Wimpy Tales-like campaign using D&D; started and aborted an ambitious Pendragon campaign; but my greatest achievement -- my most successful campaign ever -- was the South Province campaign (AD&D 1st ed.) that I started during this stretch. Running from 1997 to 2005 (eight years, though I have long mistakenly remembered it lasting ten), South Province had 14 players over the course of the campaign, had one character reach 10th level, and a compelling story arc that ended with the heroes confronting and besting the evil herzog of the province. In some ways it was City of Greyhawk-lite -- there were character-specific supporting cast and subplots, and characters sometimes spent weeks of game time separated on different tasks, but it was understood that everyone was part of a group (the Band of the Grinning Gargoyle, marking one of the only times my players ever chose a group name) and would adventure together.

Every character died at least once. A TPK was foiled once with a Wish spell, while in my most ambitious plotline I intentionally killed off every character that had ever been a member of the Band of the Grinning Gargoyle so that they could be brought back to life as prisoners in a duplicate of the Tomb of Horrors created by Acererak's spurned wife! For much of the campaign, I had time to keep up a running newsletter (The Prymptown Courier) that included write-ups of what was happening in sessions, along with interviews with NPCs and other goodies. I even found time to create an original three-level dungeon (that wrapped around one published dungeon level) that they kept coming back to, though the rest of the adventures were various published modules, heavily modified. We played through a lot of the classics like G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (with ogres instead of hill giants), G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl (with yeti instead of frost giants), and Tegel Manor.

My next nine years was 2000-2009.  After South Province wrapped up in 2005 I floundered directionless and largely player-less. But I was also moving away from wanting to run D&D as-is. In 2008 I had begun working on Hideouts & Hoodlums, a retroclone that combined the game I wanted to run with golden age comic book adventures, and in 2009, right at the end of this span of time, I began my first online H&H campaign on

But, before that, I ran my most successful online campaign ever in Yahoo! Clubs, Superland, from 2001 to 2004. Superland was largely freeform, but with a thin veneer of Marvel Super Heroes layered into it to keep combat fair. I had at least 13 players over the course of Superland; some of could not keep up and dropped out quickly, while Captain Comet, Mr. Terrific, and Dr. Eternity were mainstays who formed the foundation of the Crimebusters Club and shaped the course of the campaign. Though City of Greyhawk and South Province had a lot of this built-in, this campaign was more about simulating everyday life in a world of superheroes than it was about them having adventurers -- though that did not stop them from facing the occasional supervillain. The premise was that, in 1955, Disneyland opened, but was incorporated into the City of Anaheim instead of separate from it, and Walt Disney had invited the aging superheroes of the golden age (who were aging in real time) to come live in Disneyland. It was a shared universe setting with a hodgepodge of characters from various comic book publishers all interacting together.

My last set of nine years has been 2009-20018. During this time, I have only run two AD&D campaigns, a live session Garham to Greyhawk campaign (all east and south of the City of Greyhawk, but never reached it before a TPK ended the campaign) and an online Verbobonc campaign (my plan was to run them through the Living Greyhawk tournaments, but we only did the first one and then detoured into stopping the Cult of the Flaming Eye from possessing Dieg Manor from the super-module Fate of Istus, kind of bringing me full circle D&D-wise).

All of my other campaigns in this period have been H&H campaigns. Two also-rans were my Library Campaign, that saw a lot of young people try H&H and saw them choose to move from exploring hideouts in the Midwest to fighting Nazis in Occupied France, and a short-lived JSA campaign online that emulated just All-Star Comics #5, with a lot of wandering encounters added.

My three best campaigns in this period have been three Hideouts & Hoodlums campaigns. First was my Rpol campaign. Like South Province, the goal here was running through heavily modified classic D&D adventures -- Temple of the Frog, Tomb of Horrors, Escape from Astigar's Lair, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks -- but set in 1940. I believe that ran for four years and saw heroes reach 6th level, but erased my archive so I can't go back and check anymore.

I'm also proud of the campaign I'm running now. My first ambitious attempt to run a sandbox campaign setting using H&H, the Mount Prospect campaign (also known as Batman and the Golden Age Outsiders) is in its second year, has a steady group of five players, heroes as high as 6th level, and is largely based on the early unpublished D&D works of Rob Kuntz (with a little Len Lakofka's Lendore campaign thrown in).

But my greatest accomplishment during this period were my Blue Box Campaign/Sunday Nights Campaign, using H&H. For the only time ever, I had two independent groups of players who could cross over into each others campaigns, as happened twice. The Blue Box Campaign frustrated my players sometimes because of my ambition, but it was a perfect emulation of the solo and group adventures of the Justice Society of America from All-Star Comics #4-7, mixed with additional comic book adventures and classic modules like Dark Tower. Meanwhile, the Sunday Nights Campaign ran longer, saw heroes rise as high as 8th level, and had adventures like exploring an alternate Norway that had become magically merged with the Wilderlands campaign setting, and explored the Citystate of the Invincible Overlord. They returned to the Americas, where they fought Nazis in Brazil and wound up saving President Roosevelt from an ambush from a magic gate, but accidentally burned down the White House in their grand finale.

So my four landmark campaigns were:
City of Greyhawk
South Province
Blue Box/Sunday Nights

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Storm King's Thunder Retro-Conversion - pt. 2 (SPOILERS)

Elves to the Rescue!
Rond Arrowhome, Elf Swordsman: AC 4 (chain & shield); MV 9”; F 3; hp 19; #At 1 longbow or 1 longsword; Dmg 1-6or 1-8. 10 Arrows +1.
7 Elven Warriors: AC 4 (chain & shield); MV 9”; F 2; hp 13, 13, 12, 10, 8, 7, 6; #At 1 longbow or 1 longsword; Dmg 1-6 or 1-8.

Dripping Caves
It makes no sense that the guards at the castle know there are survivors in the Dripping Caves all this time, but don’t think to mention it until the PCs reach 3rd level. I would have one survivor escape with this news as soon as a third PC reaches 2nd level and between forays to Quasqueton.

1A. Ledges
There is a 4 in 6 chance of safely climbing to the ledges.
5 goblins: AC 7 (leather); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 7, 6, 5, 3, 1; #At 1 short bow or 1 spear; Dmg 1-6.

1B. Hot Mud Bath
1 ogre: AC 5 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 4+1; hp 19; #At 1 club; Dmg 1-10.

1C. Stalagmite Forest
1 ogre: AC 5 (leather & cover); MV 9”; HD 4+1; hp 18; #At 1 javelin or 1 club; Dmg 1-8 or 1-10.

2. Goblin Warrens
Instead of specifying “weak” goblins, noncombatants should be referred to as young goblins. Even young goblins should still be feral and dangerous, not cowering to elicit pity.

2A. Sleeping Caves
2 goblins: AC 6 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 6, 3; #At 1 spear; Dmg 1-6.
12 young goblins: AC 9; MV 12”; HD 1/2; hp 2 x6, 1 x6; #At 1 bite + claw; Dmg 1.

3A. The Blob
I didn’t expect to have to Nerf any encounters in this module, but this one is just too ridiculous for levels 1-2 (or even 3!). Now it would be--
1 ochre jelly: AC 8; MV 3”; HD 5; hp 23; #At 1 blow; Dmg 2-12; SA immune to weapons and lightning.

3B. Water Supply
There is a 5 in 6 chance of identifying the mushrooms as poisonous (come on, they’re green!). The mushrooms do not do poison damage; anyone eating one saves vs. Poison at +4 or is out of action from stomach pains for 1-6 hours.

4. Bats and Prisoners
Being caught in the bat swarm does 1-2 points of damage per person.

This isn’t Planescape; there would be no tieflings in Nightstone, so Destiny Agganor is now an elf. She’s a naughty elf, which is why she worships Asmodeus. And of course she imposes this on her son -- she’s evil!

6. Underground Stream
There is a 3 in 6 chance per 30 minutes of encountering 1 goblin or 2 young goblins here (see 2A for stats).

7. Natural Chimney
There is a 3 in 6 chance for anyone not in armor heavier than leather to climb the chimney.
2 goblins (see 2A for stats).

8. Hark’s Hoard
There is a 2 in 6 chance of finding the concealed entrance, and then a 2 in 6 chance per attempt of moving the boulder (on a 6, I’d have it roll back over a foot for 1 point of damage!).
The lock on the chest should be a real lock, but one that thieves have double chance of unlocking. The chest contains: 174 cp, 110 sp, 24 gp, a matching pair of electrum candlesticks worth 50 gp (for the pair), a case of decorative thieves’ tools worth 50 gp (for the set), a wood and gold holy symbol worth 50 gp, a potion, and a spell scroll.

9. Boss Hark’s Cave
Boss Hark, Goblin Chief: AC 2 (plate & shield); MV 3”; HD 4; hp 17; #At 1 broadsword; Dmg 1-8.
3 goblins sub-leaders: AC 4 (chain & shield); MV 6”; HD 1; hp 5, 3, 2; #At 1 short sword; Dmg 1-6.
5 goblins: AC 6 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 7, 5, 4, 3, 2; #At 1 mace; Dmg 1-6.
7 giant rats: AC 7; MV 12”; HD 1/2; hp 3 x2, 2 x3, 1 x2; #At 1 bite; Dmg 1-3.

Dealing with Hark
The PCs shouldn’t need to negotiate with Hark because he and his troops are pretty wimpy (even with their numbers boosted!). Again, there’s no way this mini-dungeon would level anyone up -- at best, everyone is going to get about 800 xp out of here.

So it’s back to Quasqueton. And then, after that, maybe the first two levels of The Caverns of Thracia. By then, at least three members of the party should be 5th level. In all, the campaign has taken 16 months of weekly sessions. Now, it’s finally time for Chapter 2.

Tower of Zephyros
Zephyros, Cloud Giant Sorcerer: AC 0 (+2 from Staff); MV 15”; HD 12+8; hp 58; #At 1 Staff +2; Dmg 6-36+2; SA hurl rocks for 2-24 dmg, spells; SD surprised on a 1, spells. Spells: Charm Person, Read Languages, Magic Missile, Sleep; Continual Light, ESP, Levitate, Mirror Image; Lightning Bolt, Protection from Normal Missiles, Slow; Confusion, Plant Growth; Contact Higher Plane.  Armed with a Staff of Power (13 charges).  

Then, because any experienced DM knows that single opponents -- no matter what their power level -- can get overwhelmed by sheer numbers with better dice rolls, Zephyros is going to need some back-up in case the PCs see that staff and get greedy. I would give him two non-adult cloud giants (maybe his children, or young cousins) for company.

2 young cloud giants: AC 5; MV 14”; HD 6; hp 29, 28; #At 1 morningstar; Dmg 2-16; SA hurl rocks for 1-12 dmg.

I would come up with activities for the PCs to do on the flying cloud island rather than just wait for wandering encounters. This might include:
1. The giants like to play bowling and challenge the PCs to a contest (with different sized pins, of course!).
2. Zephyros has lost something and needs the PCs to help search his island for it.
3. The young cousins have made dinner with some spoiled food today and someone gets sick from it.
4. The giants are trying to domesticate the griffins on the island and encourage the PCs to try going for a ride on one (very dangerous, with lots of potential falling damage!).

Day 3: The Howling Hatred
7 cultists: AC 2 (plate & shield); C 2; hp 10, 9, 8, 8, 7, 6, 5; #At 1 flail; Dmg 1-6; SA spells (Cause Light Wounds x2, Putrefy Food & Water x1, Detect Magic x1, Detect Good x1, Protection from Good x1, Darkness x1).
2 cult fanatics: AC 3 (Plate +1 & shield x1, plate & Shield +1 x1); MV 6” x1, 9” x1; C 5; hp 19, 18; #At 1 Serpent Staff x1, 1 Flail +1 x1; Dmg 1-6+1; Spells: (Cure Light Wounds, Protection from Good; Bless Hold Person) x1, (Cure Light Wounds, Detect Magic; Hold Person, Silence 15’ Radius) x1.
9 giant vultures: AC 7; MV 9”/18”; HD 2; hp 11, 10 x2, 9 x3, 8 x2, 7; #At 1 bite; Dmg 1-8.
1 invisible stalker: AC 3; MV 12”; HD 8; hp 37; #At 1 strike; Dmg 4-16.

In addition to the bag of 10 pinches of pixie dust, I would have the cultists show up with 1,000 gp in bribe money that the PCs might get, because they’ll need that for XP.