Saturday, February 28, 2009

Review: Pathfinder #4 Fortress of the Stone Giants


Every weekend, I am going back through my massive collection, and it seems to be getting bigger each week, of D&D goodness and reviewing some of the adventures and supplements that I have enjoyed throughout the run of D&D. I started with some old school classics, and then mixed in some new school stuff. I have found a great deal of satisfaction flipping through the dusty tomes in my library, and I look forward to continuing to do this on a weekly basis. One of the ultimate classics is the G-series from early in the life of AD&D. It starts with Hill Giants, then moves to Frost Giants and finishes up with Fire Giants, and it is literally a tour-de-force of giant proportion. I must admit that the Frost Giants are hands down my favorites, as I am a giant Viking fan (not to be confused with the football team). When it comes to frost, fur and fang, I am signed up.

This brings us to this week’s review which is Pathfinder #4 Fortress of the Stone Giants, Wolfgang Baur. This Pathfinder is a new take on the older concept, which was by design. The Paizo team was looking to create a new spin on the older giant modules. Stone giants were left out of the early trilogy, and they never seem to have broken free of the shadows cast by the giants featured in the earlier series. As it turns out Wolfgang has a thing for giants, so this was a perfect fit for a re-imaging of an older tale.

Wolfgang Baur

Wolfgang is a bit different from the previous two authors, Nick and Rich, who I high-lighted in my previous Pathfinder write ups. Wolfgang started out his gaming career working on Dungeon and Dragon magazines. He then switched jobs and went to work for Wizards of the Coast. As he states on his web page, the constant layoffs drove him crazy, so he set off on his own. In addition to the numerous side gigs that he does, he is the editor and chief of Kobold Quarterly and he started up his own design shop called Open Design, which is adventure writing for paying patrons. He strikes me as someone that is incredibly organized and methodical when it comes to designing dungeons. Having never seen him work, I may be totally off on this last assumption, but based on his work with KQ and OD, I think it is a safe assumption. I am going to plug his KQ magazine, as I agree with many folks that this is the spiritual successor to Dragon magazine. This is not to take anything away from the fanzines that are in production at this moment, as the work done on those smaller fanzines is also very good.


The layout is very similar to the earlier Rise of the Runelord Pathfinders, and I am including the text here for completeness. The book comes in at hefty 96 pages not counting the covers, with the actual adventure taking up 46 of these pages, with an approximate word count of ~40,000 words. The book is divided up into several sections including the main adventure, two supporting articles (Born of Stone and Dragons of Golarion), the Pathfinder Journal, bestiary (six monsters plus one template) and the pregens.

This adventure shares the same criticism as the other in the series with regards to the small font and the ease of reading. I personally did not find it that bad, but I can see how this could be a valid criticism. There have been a number of modules created with small font, and this module is not any worse than some of the others that I have seen.


As with all Pathfinders published to date, this one is in full color. Wayne again is the cover artist and has drawn up the giants doing what they do best, which is throwing rocks! The interior art is excellent. Holistically, the art in this Pathfinder is the best of the series so far by a comfortable margin. Considering that the art in the other modules is very good, goes to show how much I think of the art work in this one. There are a number of evocative pieces that capture the theme of the adventure. The supporting art in the article on dragons is just plain sweet. The Paizo team really hit their stride with the art work on this one.


The action starts with the characters taking part in defense of Sandpoint, which is coming under attack from a group of Stone Giants and their allies. As it turns out, this was just a scouting party and the full army is gathering at the giant fortress called Jorgenfist. The characters launch a daring raid against Jorgenfist hoping to defeat the leaders and stop their assault on Varisia. During the course of their raid against the Stone Giants, they find out that the giants are pawns of the Runelord Karzoug, and that they must destroy the runewell to truly defeat Karzoug.

Key features

There are a number of features that this module provides that I am going to list out below:

1. An adventure starring the Stone Giants, which is a new spin on the classic Against the Giants adventure.

2. A full scale assault by giants on the village of Sandpoint, which the characters play a major role in Sandpoint’s defense.

3. Fully mapped out giant stronghold, complete with a dungeon underneath it.

4. A very well writing article on Stone Giants by Wolfgang.

5. An article on the dragons of Golarion, which is excellent.

6. The Pathfinder Journal, which continues the chronicles of Eando Kline.

Final notes

Wolfgang has done a descent job of breathing life into the Stone Giants, and to create an adventure that hangs together well. This adventure includes what I would consider the big reveal in that the Runelord Karzoug is the BBEG of the series and that the characters have to arm themselves with special weapons if they hope to defeat him. While the adventure is decent, I think the real strength of this Adventure Path is in the supporting material. The articles on the Stone Giants and the dragons elevate this module to a higher grade than I would have assigned it without them. I really liked both articles, and they add considerably to the final product. The bestiary is big, coming in at six monsters plus a template, so all the monster fans out there should enjoy that.

Overall, I give this module a thumbs up, especially considering the support material that is included. The adventure is solid, and it does satisfy the nostalgic itch for another giant adventure. Fans of the original G- series, should like the new school spin on the classic adventure.
Rating: 4 Dragons (on a scale of 5)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Conan - First Impressions

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I finally read my first Conan anthology last weekend. I feel like I am late to a party that has been going on for several decades. I realize that in some circles it is fashionable to be late, and I hope that I can sneak into this category. With this in mind, let me throw my measly coppers into the mix of this on going discussion.

The version I read through was the Del Rey version, which contained the original stories along with a number of unfinished drafts and his notes on the Hyborian age. This version is illustrated throughout by Mark Schultz, whose work is excellent. I can not say enough good things about his quality throughout the book.

Numerous articles and blogs have been written about the character of Conan, and the commentary that REH was making through Conan. His not so subtle bashing of civilized man and the praising of the savage are well known. I enjoyed reading such quotes as:

When I was a fighting-man, the kettle-drums they beat,
The people scattered gold-dust before my horse’s feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back.

— Robert E. Howard, "The Phoenix on the Sword"


“ ”I am no dog,” the barbarian muttered. “I keep my word.” ”
— Robert E. Howard, "The God in the Bowl"

And further:

"Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content..."
— Robert E. Howard, "Queen of the Black Coast"

I could go on and on with the countless other jabs at the flaws of civilization in general. Speaking of Civilisation.

I am reminded of reading Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation back in high school, and the drone of his endless discussion on art and culture. While his TV documentary series was popular in 1969, the book was a bit dry, and I am not sure a good helping of British tea (or Chinese tea for that matter) could have made that text a bit more engaging. I think I must have blotted out the memory of that book, for it was not until I was reading Conan that those images of long ago came back to me. Conan is such a stark contrast to Clark’s work that I could not help but chuckle as I was reading it. I suspect that if REH wrote The Skin of our Teeth, the theme would have been slightly different. Clark’s stoic patrician demeanor clashes nicely with REH.

"Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing. "
— Robert E. Howard, "The Tower of the Elephant"

While one could argue that Howard’s Conan is a bit formulaic, and his stories follow a perdictably familiar beat. That is a fully valid point, but there is certain prose interwoven with his jabs at society that makes it bit more than just a pedestrian teenage series in the vein of The Hardy Boys. His Conan is not the traditional hero that tends to dominate literature, but rather he is grizzly protagonist that reminds me a bit of the hero with no name and the anti-establishment hero.

While I cannot say for certain if Clint Eastwood ever read any of the Conan books, but I can say that his cowboy flicks that include, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, and Pale Rider have more than a little bit of Conan in them. In a number of the REH’s stories, Conan is a stranger that happens on to the scene, and has to introduce himself into the action, but once he is introduced, he is a force to be recognized with. Often Conan is on his own, running from something, or a part of a mercenary group that splits apart to join in the tale that is unfolding. Clint as Dirty Harry is the anti-establishment hero, and is called a dinosaur, but he might as well be called a barbarian, as that is how the department sees him. A throw back to an earlier era that is not fit for civilized society. As with Conan, Harry has a strong sense of right and wrong, and knows a corrupt system when he sees it. He has no time for idiots and neither does Conan.

“ ”Save your bullying for the fools who fear you,” he growled, blue fires smoldering in his eyes. “I’m no city-bred Nemedian to cringe before your hired dogs. I’ve killed better men than you for less than this.” “
— Robert E. Howard, "The God in the Bowl"

I am not sure if these words were spoken by the characters that Clint took on, but you can see that same theme and tone in the acting.

I suspect that this will not be the last time that Clint or Conan makes it into the blog, as their high testosterone, anti-establishment, bigger than life exploits are the type of thing that resonates well with me.

Beta testing and Feedback (part 2)

I was reading through my blog from last night, and I want to expand upon an idea that I do not think I emphasized enough, and that concerns feedback.

The biggest advantage by far to beta testing is feedback. Feedback is a powerful tool by which we can make improvements to products, systems and processes, but it does not have to stop there. Feedback can also shape behaviors. As I stated yesterday, in this information age that we live in, we can get immediate feedback on just about anything. In order for feedback to be effective, an individual or organization has to be receptive to this feedback. They have to put themselves in position to accept this feedback, as constructive feedback is not always pleasant to read about. Soliciting feedback is the easy part. Reading through it without getting overly defensive is something else entirely.

I think there is a natural reluctance for organizations to share too much and to open themselves up for feedback. The fact that Paizo did this is significant, which is the point of my blog yesterday. It was an ambitious under taking. WotC also did testing, but it was on a smaller scale. It was not very ambitious.

Today I as arrived at work, I saw several examples of feedback at work. Which I will highlight below:

1) As I booted up my computer, the MSN news page popped up, and there was an article about Facebook. Facebook is a very popular social networking site that facilitates information sharing. Recently they tried to change their policies on the ownership of user content. The users immediately sent tens of thousands of complaints, and Facebook went back to the older policy.
2) Product quality is another example. When there is a quality issue, it immediately pops up on blogs, message boards and YouTube. Companies need to understand how this impacts them, and how to quickly respond to this feedback.

In this age, companies that can take advantage of customer feedback and learn how to utilize the feedback potential will find themselves better positioned in the market place. While a lot of companies say that they put customers first, I wonder how many really know how to do that.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pathfinder Beta Testing

Beta, pilots, prototypes, and models. None of this is new or cut edge stuff. A lot of companies release early versions for testing. Sometimes it is released to a large test group, and sometimes it is only released to a small test group. But, I think something significant happened last year with regards to beta testing.

Back on March 18th 2008, Paizo announced that they were not going to use 4th ed for their adventure paths, and instead they were going to publish a new set of rules compatible with 3.5 ed, which they were going to call their Pathfinder Role Playing Game (PFRPG). They announced that they were going to conduct an open play test and set up forums in which fans and play testers can provide feedback. They promptly published an Alpha version, and several subsequent updates to this. In August, they published their Beta rules which represented most of what we should expect.

This past Monday, they completed the open play test, and have closed down most of the forums for comments. The results are impressive with over 45,000 individual downloads and well over 100,000 individual comments. Now, we will not see the final results for another six months, but I suspect that Paizo will be providing teasers, and they will probably have the finished version to their printers by April or May, to ensure that they have copies for the big roll out at Gencon 2009. I also suspect that their PFRPG launch at Gencon will be the big event this year.

So what does all this really mean? Good question. Let’s dig into it a bit.

It is interesting to compare what Paizo did with PFRPG what WotC did for 4th ed. Paizo did an open play test. WotC did a very limited play test, with their testers under NDA’s. WotC came under intense criticism for the way they conducted their marketing, as the fans were not happy with the lack of information and the tight control with which they bound the non-WotC play testers. For the most part, Paizo received favorable fan reaction to the open play test, even if not everyone liked the direction that Paizo was going. No one could fault them on their openness of information.

It is interesting to note that we live in an information age that is radically different than what has previously existed. We have access to data and information that is only a few key strokes and a click away. Fans get rabid about information flow. With the creation of the internet message boards, millions of posts are made each day on the zillions of message boards that exist on the web. Amazing stuff. While we can acknowledge that this is true, does it really matter?

Even though WotC received more than its fair share of criticism prior to launch, initial sales of the 4th ed books hit solid numbers with well over 100,000 books sold. For the sake of argument, let’s say that WotC did sell 100,000 sets of books. This far and away out performs any RPG on the market by leaps and bounds. Clearly it is still less than what TSR sold of the early editions, but 100,000 sets sold is nothing to be ashamed of. Overall these are solid sales numbers. The negative buzz did not seem to hurt the initial sales out numbers.

For Paizo’s PFRPG, the numbers are a bit different. The book is not released yet, so the following discussion is purely speculative on my part, and based on stats thrown out by the Paizo team. One of the staff members mentioned that the target numbers for Pathfinder are around 10,000. This is a rounded off number, and I suspect that the actual sales numbers are slightly lower, although over time, they could reach 10,000, and that may indeed be the size of their print runs. Paizo mentions that the Beta had 45,000 downloads. Considering that the download was free, that probably generated downloads that would not have happened with a $50 book. I suspect that if the Pathfinder AP is targeted at 10,000, one can assume that projected sales of the big book will be close to this number. If this book remains in print for 10 years or so, sales numbers could climb to 15,000. When one compares the 15K Paizo number to the 100K WotC number it hardly seems like a fair comparison.

However, I do think there are some additional considerations. I think Paizo benefited from having an open play test, with generally favorable attitudes. This favorable word of mouth probably resulted in additional downloads and additional interest that would not have been there otherwise. While it is hard to quantify how many folks downloaded due to the buzz created by the numerous message boards, such as Enworld, I suspect that the number is significant.

To come back to the concept open beta testing, while this is not a new concept, it is not usually used in the RPG industry. Usually the testing is done with small groups. With the relative success that Paizo is enjoying at the moment, I suspect that we may see more of this on the bigger projects. I would not expect to see it used on the smaller projects. I think WotC was probably taking some notes, and it will be interesting to see if they open up the beta testing on 5th ed, so we know it is coming eventually. If we set WotC aside, there are a number of mid sized RPG game companies such as FFG, Mongoose, White Wolf, and there are probably some others that I am forgetting, that may adapt to the open beta testing.

I applaud Paizo for making such a bold move, and I hope it turns out well for them. I will be watching them closely in the upcoming months, and I do think that it is interesting to compare what Paizo has done and what WotC did for 4th ed. It will be also interesting to see if any other companies follow the trail blazed by Paizo.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review: Pathfinder #3 The Hook Mountain Massacre

Them ogres just ain’t right.


Well, this adventure is rather special, but I am not quite sure of what kind of special it is. Inbred, backwards, hillbilly type ogres are just in a different category all together, and one should only venture into this territory with the utmost care. When Gary penned his famed appendix N, I am not sure that any of the source material Nick used would have made the list. Gary probably knew better than that. So, it is only with the utmost caution that I write this review and hopefully my sanity stays with me before I can finish.

As an X-files fan, I have probably seen almost all the episodes. I have definitely seen the most notable episodes, and some of them more than once. There is one episode that I have seen, that I will probably not be watching any time soon, and that is Home (season 4, episode 2). That one is just plain nasty. I am not sure what inspired Glenn Morgan and James Wong to write it, and I am not sure I even want to know. I shutter just thinking about it. In any event, this Pathfinder adventure was clearly influenced by this episode. When this one hit the retail shelves and folks started reading it, the message boards were ablaze with commentary. Some folks loved it, and some folks were just repulsed by it.

This one is special.

Nicolas Logue

There are a couple of writers that are just in a league of their own, and have separated themselves with the quality of their work from the other writers of adventures and supplements. And then there is Pett and Logue. In my last review I spent a few words describing Rich, so to be fair, I need to spend a couple of Nick.

I must admit, that I have never met Nick, yet, but I am hoping to run into him at Gencon later this year. I have chatted with him on a number of occasions, and I have read a number of his message board threads, and I think I can safely say that he is a wild one, and has an interesting background. I think he and Rich have a friendly competition going on how can out do the other in regards to warped and twisted adventures, and I am not sure who will come out on top. Clearly Nick has distinguished himself with this adventure. I am probably one of the few that have seen snippets of this adventure that ended up on the wrong end of James Jacobs editing pen. Suffice to say that Nick has a very special talent.


The layout is very similar to the earlier Rise of the Runelord Pathfinders, and I am including the text here for completeness. The book comes in at hefty 96 pages not counting the covers, with the actual adventure taking up 47 of these pages, with an approximate word count of ~40,000 words. The original manuscript came in at over 50,000 words, so the amount of words that were cut from the final version was considerable. The book is divided up into several sections including the main adventure, two supporting articles (Keeping the Keep and a Varisia gazetteer), the Pathfinder Journal, bestiary (six monsters) and the pregens.

This adventure shares the same criticism as the other in the series with regards to the small font and the ease of reading. I personally did not find it that bad, but I can see how this could be a valid criticism. There have been a number of modules created with small font, and this module is not any worse than some of the others that I have seen.


As with all Pathfinders published to date, this one is in full color. The cover art by Wayne Reynolds is very well done, and truly captures the spirit of the ogres that are in this adventure. I cannot say enough good things about the about the cover, as I really like it. The overall interior of this Pathfinder is a mixed bag, with some very evocative art, along with some mediocre art. The landscape art and the maps are excellent. Some of the action “shots” leave me a little cold, as they are too bright and do not convey the overall darkness of the module.


This adventure is rather long, and has 5 major subparts to it. The characters are to investigate some missing rangers and run afoul of the Graul family of ogre-kins. After defeating the Grauls, the next hurdle is retaking Fort Rannick, which has been taken over by the Kreeg ogres. With the recapture of the fort, the town of Turtleback Ferry comes under attack by unnatural rains. This will lead the characters to the ancient dam of Skull Crossing. Upon completion of this task, the characters are ready to climb Hook Mountain to put an end to the ogre menace once and for all. This will set them up for the next adventure.

Key features

There are a number of features that this module provides that I am going to list out below:

1. Backwoods style horror adventure

2. The fully mapped out Fort Rannick, and the possibility that the characters can end up in possession of it

3. Fully mapped out Skull crossing dam.

4. An article detailing how to run a keep

5. The gazetteer of Varisia.

6. The Pathfinder Journal, which continues the chronicles of Eando Kline

Final notes

As I mentioned in the opening, not everyone is going to like it, as it has a rather dark and nasty theme to it. There is a lot to like about this module. Nick does a great job in covering the Turtleback Ferry town and the surrounding area. He actually covers a lot of territory, and the adventure moves the characters through a number of the high interest locations. The fort is covered in good details, and the characters will enjoy a chance to run it. This can easily be expanded upon, and offers plenty of role playing opportunities. The dam location is one of my favorites, as there is quite a bit to this location. Wayne’s cover art adds considerable flavor to this encounter. The inner workings of the dam are particularily interesting, but I will not include any spoilers on this. The module has a very smooth transition to the next module, and I think James and Nick did a nice job on this.

Overall, I give this module a thumbs up, as I did enjoy reading through it. I fully understand that this will not appeal to everyone based on the content. If one enjoys backwoods horror and Home, then this one is for you. If you have a more sensitive outlook on things, I would apply caution before opening.

Rating: 3.5 Dragons (on a scale of 5)

Monstrous Discussions: My Top 10 Favorite Monsters

James over at Grognardia has an excellent post on his top ten monsters. Since it is Saturday night here in China and I am feeling rather lazy at the moment, I thought I would follow suit for today’s blog, and I will write my product review post tomorrow.

One of the first D&D books I bought was the 1st ed Monster Manual. Even though the front cover is a bit of a mess, the interior of the book is pure genius. It is a walk through literature, the pulps, and mythology, and most of the names are instantly recognizable. I first saw it in the hands of my buddy, and I just could not put the book down when he showed it to me. I still have my original book, complete with a signature from Gary himself!

Without further ramblings, let’s get on with the list.

1. Wolves/Worgs/Winterwolves. I love these guys. I know I am grouping a bunch of these canine critters together, but I will use them interchangeably based on character level and the environment. When I am designing and running games, expect a heavy dose of these baddies. In my mind, they are very versatile and can be used to augment an encounter with other monsters, then can stand by themselves, and they can give a bit of ambience with their sinister howl. In addition, I love the concept of talking worgs that serve as messengers for the BBEG. As a final point, worg riders are the best! While the scene in The Two Towers movie was a Peter Jackson add on scene, it was really cool to watch.

2. Dragons. I love dragons. The good ones (silver), the bad ones (red), and the ugly ones (blue - the third edition ones are just really ugly, but I like them anyways). And there are plenty in between to like as well. I like the idea of drakes as lesser dragons that can challenge lower level parties. I like the idea of dragon men. While I am not a big fan of DragonLance, the concept behind the Draconians was a really interesting idea – good dragon eggs that had been corrupted using vile magic and abishai.

3. Werewolves. Of all the lycanthropes, these are my favorites. I also like the idea of wolfweres, which are the reverse of werewolves. In the Ravenloft campaign setting, both of these beasties received a lot of attention, and were one of my favorite parts of that setting. For me, there is a strong link between werewolves and gothic horror, which is always fun for a GM.

4. Ratmen. I have always like the way Games Workshop has treated the concept of ratmen. They are servants of chaos and have access to bizarre chaos weapons, which adds to the mystique of these creatures. When Monte published Ptolus, he included ratmen in the monster write ups, along with plenty of ideas on how to treat chaos. For me, this was perfect. In my Ptolus campaign that I ran, ratmen received generous attention and were a primary villain for the characters to battle. Going forward I expect them to infest my future campaigns. ON a side note, I do like wererats, however I am hooked on the GW feel of ratmen, which gives them the nod over the wererats.

5. Lich. Whoa…what’s not to like. Perhaps the most memorable lich I ever faced was the second lich , which was a 37th level lich. I can still remember that encounter fairly vividly. The GM for that particular monstrosity was my buddy Mike who was one of my favorite GM’s, although his stuff was always super powered, but the concepts were awesome. He took D&D to a whole different level, that that is another story. Needless to say when he announced that the lich was just going to cast a little 'ole fireball, my other buddy freaked. “That’s a 37 dice fireball! There is nothing small about a 37 dice fireball.” It was just a precious moment. I cannot remember how much damage it did, but it was significant. This was also the occasion that I was introduced to the spell meteor swarm. Ouch!

6. Gnolls. Hairy, smell, hyena humanoids that worship demons. Perfect! Paizo is going to be featuring them in their upcoming Legacy of Fire Adventure Path, and I am curious to see what sort of flavor Paizo is going to given them. Eric Mona is writing up the first book, and it is due out in another month.

7. Wraiths. As a big Tolkien fan, wraiths are one of my favorites. The 1st ed one is by far the best. With their level drain, they are just pain scary. I really like the idea of the Ring Wraiths, which are powerful servants of a BBEG. They also remind me of the Shadowlords from Ultima V, which is perhaps my favorite of the Ultima series. This is another blog post that I want to write up in the near future.

8. Shadows. Shadows are great. They are sneaky, and you can put them anywhere. They are one of the ultimate dungeon critters, and a definite favorite in my book.

9. Gargoyle. Gargoyles smack of gothic horror. Stone creatures that have been animated by evil magic, and serve are guardians. With the possibility of multiple arms, wings, horns, and tails, these guys have it all, and they just ooze flavor.

10. Kobolds. I love ‘em for a number of reasons. They are going to be the topic of an upcoming Monstrous Discussion, so I will hold off on further comments.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What is D&D: General Commentary

There is a lot of yapping on the internet about the different versions and why one is better than the other. When one counts the major message boards and blogs available on the web, and how much traffic they see on a day in day out basis, it really is impressive. I am continually amazed on the number of folks in our hobby, and the number of passionate and diverse opinions that are out there. Some posters put together well thought out positions and their posts show a deeper understanding of rules and the mechanics behind them. Some posters reply with more emotion than cold analysis. Some posters are trolls stirring up the pot. Some folks just get carried away on a topic, and keep it going well past its due date. Some folks let it get to them, and some let it roll off their backs. In my opinion, it’s all good. I love the banter. It creates for spirited debate, and good work comes out of this discussion. But through all this, I think it is good to take a step back and ask, what is D&D, and why do we like it.

Over the past week or two I have been blogging on this topic, in an attempt to create some thought on the topic. I have covered adventure design with respect to AP’s and Sandboxes, and what is the nature of characters with my Superman and Indiana Jones post. I have also blogged a bit about mechanics and rules. I have done all this, in order to spell out some ideas that have been running through my head on the topic. I do think that regardless of the editions or the rule sets that folks like, there is an underlying core enjoyment of the game, that continues to attract gamers.

I believe that there is a fundamental essence that brings everyone together. Computer games are fun, and I have played my fair share, no doubt. At this moment I do not play the big MMOG’s, because if I started, I probably would not get anything else done. It is with mixed feelings that I actually write that, but I trust that my readers know what I mean.

One of the things that I think computers and online gaming will never replace is the face to face game experience and the up front and personal aspect of the game, and I think I am not in the minority on this. I know that when I see the sweat drip off my opponent’s nose, it is a good game! I don’t see that in a computer game. I live to see my players jump up and down with excitement and cringe when something bad happens to them. I love to see the belly busting laughter of the group when a character walks through a door and a bucket of poop falls on his head from a goblin trap. This really happened in my last campaign, and it was a high point of the entire campaign. It was really funny stuff. For me, as an old timer with a family, this is my Saturday night poker game, and I hope I can continue to roll the dice for many more years to come.

So, I think we do need to take time and step back and ask ourselves, what is D&D, and what is the core essence of the game. D&D is a little different than T&T or Rune Quest, or Role Master. Some of this is because of rules and mechanics, some of this is the fluff behind the rules, but I think there is something more. Now I do not pretend to believe that D&D is the best role playing game out there. Even if we have alignment across all gamers that this was true, there is still something to be said for mixing it up and playing something different every now and then.

With that, I will close today’s entry. I will continue to ponder the roots of the game, and continue to define the essence of the game and how it is changing. For I still believe that regardless of how the game changes, there is still something special that makes the whole thing run, and we should not lose that in the midst of this change.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What is D&D: Old Mechanics v. New Mechanics

This could end up being a short post, as I am waiting for the Gencon housing to open, which should be in about an hour. So come 1am China time I am done with my post.

So the other day, I ranted, for I cannot really call what I wrote an intellectually serious discussion, but it was fun to write, about the numerous versions of the rules. Today I want to step back and ask the question, can mechanics improve over time? This is a bit different than are the rules getting better over time, which was my rant earlier, but should we even try to make better mechanics. I believe the answer is yes, mechanics can get better, but not all rule sets are better.

It is probably worth while to note that one person’s improvement is another person’s garbage dump. I have seen folks on message boards go back and forth on a particular mechanic attacking and defending, with vigor and passion, a particular rule for pages at a time. To be honest, I have a really short attention span, so after about a page or two, I am ready for the next thread. That is probably a terrible trait, but that’s where I am. I am reminded of Harry Callahan’s quote even as I write this ( I know my own limitations).

I will hit on a couple of mechanics to illustrate the point further. In early editions of D&D, the armor classes descend. I believe that this originally came from the Chainmail mass combat rules. In third edition, armor classes changed to an ascending mechanic. In my opinion, I think the ascending armor class is actually a better mechanic than the descending armor classes in the role playing context. I think it is better as it is more intuitive and it saves time by not having to reference a “To Hit” chart. Basically I am saying that it creates smoother play, and does not disrupt the spirit of the game. One of the things that I appreciate with the S&W rule set is that it includes both ascending and descending armor classes. Now I appreciate that some grognards out there like the descending armor class system, but again, I think the ascending armor classes results in smoother play due to the intuitive nature of the roll a d20 and beat the monster’s AC.

The weapon AC adjustment table is another example. The table was there in first edition, and it was dropped in the subsequent editions because no one ever used them. I have talked to a number of folks, and I have played with a number of different groups, and I have not seen this chart used. Recently I have seen some bloggers talk about it, and they may in fact decide to use it, but for the most part this was a mechanic that was dropped as the majority of the players did not use it.

Let me hit on ability scores. In my opinion, this was one of the quirky things about 1st edition. Strength went to 18, and then there were percentile dice that were used to give additional bonuses up through 18-00. None of the other ability scores had his mechanic built in. In third edition, the scores were standardized, and this makes more sense to me. Of course, I am all about standardization. I also understand if some of the old timers like the quirkiness of 1st ed.

For thieving skills, first edition used percentage dice. In third edition, skill checks are done with d20’s. I like d20’s, as it feels aligned to the d20 mechanic that the system is build around. First edition felt like a half and half system between the d20 and percentile dice. Mark me in the camp of moving to d20’s. Again, this standardization on the mechanic does not take away from the spirit of the game.

Now let me show a couple of examples where the mechanics have been made worse and did not improve overall play. I have blogged about the weapon damage inflation and the monster hit point inflation, and I clearly think this is too much. With each edition, the values keep going up. With 4th edition, I think it is a bit overboard. The first 4th edition module had a villain that came in over 100 hit point. In my mind, this should have been a red flag. It is too bad that this sort of inflation does not come crashing down to reset like oil prices of last year did. We could use a bit of deflation, as I liked the old system better.

With this in mind, I am not completely in favor of the current skill set system. In old school play, we would just role play the encounter rather than roll dice. I think we need to move back to that. I think this aspect of the skill system does take away from the spirit of the game, and I wish we would go backwards on this. If a dice roll is required, I like rolling the d20, but I think we should be pushing the role play element first, before rolling the dice.

I probably could go on and list out a bunch of other mechanics and show where improvements have been made, and where we have made it worse. I have heard some say that mechanics cannot be improved, and that the best version was the original. I see their point, but I am not necessarily aligned to this point of view. I think both sides of the debate can point out strengths and weaknesses of past and present systems. The spirit of the rules is the important point, and to me that is the meat and potatoes of the whole thing. If we throw out the meat in favor of tofu, that is where I have to draw the line and say this does not work for me.

PS…I have my hotel reservations, but I did not get my first choice. Blah!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What is D&D: Old Rules v. New Rules

Call it 35 years. There maybe some folks out there that will quibble a bit with the dates, but let’s keep it simple and call it 35 years. In those 35 years, we have seen at least 7 rule versions (Chainmail, OD&D, Basic, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, & 4th), and there are folks out there that would correct me and divide up OD&D a bit more, but again, let’s keep it simple and say 7 versions, partly because I like 7. Seven is a number that has an air of preciseness that is absent from a number like 5 or 10 or multiples there of.

If I look at the other role playing systems out there, most have at least 4 revisions, and some a bit more than that. If I go out and look at Warhammer or Warhammer 40K, they are both past 4 editions. Ultima, the computer game had 9 versions, not counting the online stuff they did. If I started looking further, I am sure that I would find more examples.

This naturally leads to the question of why so many versions. Was the initial version of the game so hosed up that it took seven tries to get it right? Were the game designers so inept that they just could not figure it out? Was their quality department so poor that they continually let crappy designs out the door? Or perhaps it was that the R&D department’s mantra was trial and error, however they just could not move past error? Or better yet, was TSR and WotC management totally clueless with regards to talent that they had to keep firing their staffs after each failed version?

Holy Toledo! Seven editions in 35 years. For those that are keeping score that is an edition every 5 years. So should I expect to see the 5th edition in 2013?

There are some that would call this evolution - Darwinism in the game design industry. On a more serious note, I think it is inevitable that D&D will continue to evolve. The very nature of the game invites tinkering with the rules. I have heard it said that no GM runs their game the same way, and through my personal experience, this is true. On any given day, I can browse a message board or blog and see folks suggesting new content, new rules, new classes, new fill in the blank, etc… I would even go as far as to say that today we are seeing more content and rules then has ever existed before.

If we say that there are seven editions of D&D, how many retro clones and D20 offshoots (C&C, Pathfinder, etc..) are there? At least another seven, maybe more, and that would bring our total rule sets up to 14. That translates into a new rule set every 2.5 years. So I should expect another rule set next year?

Are we moving forward, or are we moving backwards? I heard somewhere that the original rules had it right, and we should not tinker too much with the original. The original Chainmail rules were definitely rules light, coming in at 16 pages. Ponder on that for a moment. 16 pages. Jason Bulmahn’s Pathfinder RPG will come in at 560 pages. The version 2 OSRIC comes in at 402 pages. Matt Finch’s Swords and Wizardry comes in at a mere 82 pages, and seems a bit of a light weight compared to the other books.

I think as gamers, we like rules. Oh sure we say we don’t, but the evidence points otherwise. Any attempt to create a true rules light version of the game, quickly turns into a rule heavy game as soon as the fan base starts publishing content, and we can publish content at a surprising rate.

First there was Dragon magazine. Then came Dungeon. For a number of years there were just these two magazines. WotC pulled them back, and converted them to electronic format. Within two years of this announcement, we now have a number of new fan based magazines springing up all over the place. It is important to note that the primary goal of these magazines is to publish content, of which rules are a large part of them.

And we have not even touched on house rules. Could it be possible that house rules are created every week?

So with all these rule sets, has the spirit of the game been lost? In an attempt to categorize each and every tree, have we lost sight of the forest? Are we to in the weeds on the details to catch the bigger picture? Are we making rules just to make rules? For me that is an important point. I have never been a rule lawyer type. That stuff ruins the whole thing. I have blogged quite a bit about the shared game experience and I think that is the engine that drives the fun. Rules should be created with the purpose of enhancing the shared game experience, not to be the primary focus of the game. There are some that think the rules are the focus, and I think they are missing out on the creative fun that can be had.

There are a number of us that like to go back to the roots of the game, and see what drove the early games. For me, it is not so much what were the original rules, but what was the spirit of those early games. I am not convinced that the early rules had the secret sauce, or that any rule set since has had that special ingredient. For my upcoming campaign, I do not want to miss out on the spirit of fun that drove the early games.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

GenCon 2009

Tickets for GenCon 2009 go up tomorrow. At this moment, I am planning on attending, and I will be buying tickets. One of the problems with being on this side of the world is that 12noon EST is 1am here. I am not looking forard to booking hotel reservations at 1am. Brutal!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: Pathfinder #2 The Skinsaw Murders


This is the second module in the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, and it is the best of first series. The adventure was released in October of 2007, which I think was very fitting considering the tone of the module. This module was the first Pathfinder to sell out, and Paizo did reorder this one, and I suspect it may the last time they do this, which says something about the popularity of this particular adventure. In this review I will look at it as a standalone product, and then once I have completed the reviews on the rest of the adventures in the series, I will do a final wrap up and look at the series as a whole, and offer my commentary on the entire AP.

Richard Pett

Normally I would not have a section on the author, but in this case, I feel I would not do the review justice if I did not provide at least a couple of comments on the author. To put it bluntly, he is warped, twisted and creepy..err…I mean his writing style is warped, twisted and creepy. As a big fan of Lovecraft, Ravenloft, and gothic horror, his writing style resonates well with me, and he is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. James Jacobs writes a vivid description of Rich’s writing style in the introduction that captures the essence of what his writing is about. I am hoping that the Paizo team will give him more chances at writing gothic horror.


The layout is very similar to Burnt Offerings, and I am including the text here for completeness. The book comes in at hefty 96 pages not counting the covers, with the actual adventure taking up 49 of these pages, with an approximate word count of ~40,000 words. The book is divided up into several sections including the main adventure, two supporting articles (Magnimar Gazetteer and Desna), the Pathfinder Journal, bestiary (five monsters) and the pregens.

The first adventure path drew a number of critics on the font size and the ease of reading. I personally did not find it that bad, but I can see how this could be a valid criticism. There have been a number of modules created with small font, and this module is not any worse than some of the others that I have seen.


The artwork in Pathfinder #2 is notably better than Pathfinder #1, as most of the cartoonish art has been removed. The cover is by Wayne Reynolds, and he has created a wonderfully evocative piece that really captures the spirit of the adventure, and he has included the manor in the background, which plays a prominent role. The interior is full color, and fits in with the tone and theme of the module. The cartography is excellent, and I am again reminded how far we have come with regards to the presentation of maps in adventures. They really have moved beyond simply being maps and are an integral part of the overall art scheme.


There are three main parts of this module. There is the introduction, in which the sheriff asks the characters to investigate a series of murders that are occurring in the Sandpoint area. The investigation leads up to part two which is the haunted manor. Upon completing the exploration of the manor, part three of the adventure has the characters head to Magnimar to chase down the Skinsaw cultists and ultimately confront the BBEG, which is taken from the bestiary found in the back of the book.

Key features
There are a number of features that this module provides that I am going to list out below:

1. A gothic horror style adventure

2. The fully mapped out haunted manor

3. Haunts, which is a new look at traps.

4. The gazetteer of Magnimar.

5. The Pathfinder Journal, which has the feel of the older pulp sword and sorcery writing. This particular Journal officially starts the chronicles of Eando Kline, which is one of my favorite parts of the book, and one of the first sections that I read.

Final notes

Simply put, this adventure rocks. I really liked the mood and tone of the adventure. The haunted house is wonderfully writing and is small enough that one could easily pull it out and use it for a one day mega adventure or split it up over a couple of nights. In one of the opening side bars Rich writes the following.

It’s true—not everyone wants to run Adventure Paths. Some people don’t even want to run entire adventures. In my own campaigns, I like using elements of published adventures mingled with my own adventures. Having access to PDFs of adventures really fired my imagination—and one thing I’ve tried in “The Skinsaw Murders” is to include “mini-adventures” tied to the overall plot. You can run this adventure either as part of the whole Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path or as a standalone. You can also dip into the adventure and extract segments of it, using the Hambley Farm encounter as a one-evening side quest, for example.

I think it is this type of design philosophy, which is one of modular construction that is the real strength of the adventure. It is easily adaptable, and has the strength to stand on its own, and not have to be tied to the overall adventure path.
As a criticism, one can easily argue that the plot is too linear, and that there is a natural progression to the adventure that makes it tough to go out of sequence. I agree that his is true; however the strength of the encounters and the modular design makes this easy for me to over look.

Overall, I give this module a solid thumbs up, and it is perhaps the best of the Pathfinder books that Paizo has published thus far.

Rating: 5 Dragons (on a scale of 5)

What is D&D: Sandbox v. Adventure Path (Part 2)

The sandbox design is an open area of play, with encounters anchored to locations rather than events. Some sandboxes can include entire world, and some only include a dungeon and the surrounding area. The appeal of this style of play is the free form play style, in which the players can make choices as to what they want to do, and the story line centers around these choices. The characters are the main focus of the story. What’s not to like?

Actually, there are a number of issues and challenges with sandbox adventure design and execution. In order to make a sandbox work, the GM needs to be very familiar with the area, and be ready for the unexpected. Speaking for myself, when I run sandbox adventures, I like to have the area memorized with a lot of notes so that I am ready for anything. Now I have met GM’s that can ad lib a pig farm and turn it into an exciting adventure, but that takes a special talent that not every GM has. I think it is important to recognize this, as sometimes there are assumptions that all GM’s are equally talented, and that is not quite true, as we are all different, with different strengths and weaknesses in our refereeing style.

I think the key challenges for sandbox play are as follows:

1) Lack of direction which can bog down play
2) Loss of interest, as there may not be an obvious goal to accomplish
3) Lack of coherent or organized theme through excessive use of random encounters leads to a loss of overall interest in moving forward
4) Players may outgrow their sandbox
5) Increased pressure for the GM in terms of preparation with large sandboxes and numerous player choices
6) May not be sustainable for long campaigns

One of the main advantages of this style of play is the Freedom of Choice that is inherit in this style of play. However, is this really an advantage? Do players really want choices in their adventures? On the surface, the answer is clearly yes. Everyone likes choices…to a point. I believe that too many choices actually leads to a paralysis of play, as the game reduces to discussions on what to do next, with no clear direction emerging out of the conversation. I think there is a natural tendency to withdraw rather than engage when confronted with vagueness of purpose. When this happens, it is time to regroup and start over.

When this issue pops up, I have heard GM’s complain that their players are unwilling to explore their world, and I have heard players complain that there is not enough to do to keep their interest. Both are right, it’s just the frame of reference is different, and that makes all the difference in terms of enjoyment of play. This is why I believe that the opening hook has to be a good one, as that is the first thing the players are going to focus their attention on. I believe that it is critical that a campaign get off to a good fast start, as that provides momentum for the game. This helps offset the potential for a rudderless mid game drift, which is one of the major pitfalls of the sandbox style of play.

To wrap up this point; while we all like choices, we really do not like ambiguity, and we would really rather have a bit more structure to our lives. This is definitely true in our professional lives, and this carries over to our game play. A limited set of choices is good, too many choices and we start to bog down, which ultimately effects our fun quotient. The reality is that while we may say we like choices, we may find more enjoyment with a limited set of choices, rather than an unlimited set of choices.


So this brings us back to the opening question, what is D&D, the sandbox or the adventure path? I am sure that there are zealous proponents of both, that can point to great games that they have had with both styles of play. But which one really captures the spirit of the game? That is a tougher question. Some critics may be comfortable stopping here, but this does not satisfy me, which is what prompted me to write the article. Leaving the discussion at this point is a bit like kicking a FG for the tie rather than go for the win, so I will press on.

Clearly D&D started with the sandbox style campaign. However there has been a certain amount of evolution in the game. While some may say that this evolution has been bad for the game, and I am not sure that we can make such a wide sweeping generalization. The popularity in the early days of plot and story, is significant, and represents a valid direction of the game. With this said, I do not think we can dismiss it out of hand.

I will offer something of a middle ground, and I think that it is a fair position to hold. I like the legacy roots of the sandbox game, but we need to recognize the limitations of this style of play. We also need to recognize the limitations of the adventure path, with extreme versions of this style being similar to reading a story of someone else’s character, which leads to a lack of accomplishment, and hinders enjoyment. I think the sandbox mini-campaign, with one or more plot arcs is probably the optimal game design that offers the best of both world, and leverages the strengths of both styles. I will go on to say that I think this was present in some of the early modules, including the classic G and D series. While the series offered a wide range of options for the players, there was a central theme that could be adjusted by the GM, and I think that it was a critical element to the success of the overall series.

Next up, I will dig more into the evolution of the mechanics of the game. I think the D&D game encourages evolution, as creativity is an important part of the fun, but is it all good?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Knockspell issue 1

So I was all set to start writing a blog entry continuing on with my topic from yesterday, until I downloaded Knockspell. Granted it is written by the usual suspects (grin), but it is really good. Needless to say, I printed it out today and read through the entire thing. My hat is off to Matt Finch for a doing superb job in putting it together. Hopefully this will become a regularly published fan-zine.

As an aside, Jeff's maps are much neater than my scribble maps.

Monday, February 9, 2009

What is D&D: Sandbox v. Adventure Path (Part 1)

Sandbox design or Adventure Path design?

Until just recently, I had not given a lot of thought to the question. From a historical perspective, D&D started with the sandbox. Greyhawk was the early sandbox campaign, with adventures centered on exploring the old castle and the ruins below. Continuing on this theme, the campaign initially was a mega dungeon that supported several groups and then over time, the concept of campaign changed to a series of adventures (or dungeons) with one group (see blog discussion on Grognardia). This in turn has led to a change in design philosophy.

As D&D moved from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, the concept of adventure path was created, but it was a rough attempt to link already written adventures together. T1 was linked to Q1 with the A series, G series and D series in between. Extra material was written to build the bridge to otherwise separate adventures. To be fair, the G series were intended to follow each other, and the D series clearly built on information contained in earlier works. Following this, there was concentrated attempt to link modules tightly together (Desert series) and even large story arcs together through the DragonLance series. Now I would argue that DragonLance is an extreme example, as the modules tried to follow material written in the novels. This proved to be very popular, and the trend continued.

Jumping ahead to 3rd edition and Dungeon magazine, Paizo formally claimed the term adventure path with their Shacked City adventure path which first appeared in the magazine before being produced into a hardcover book. This was followed by Age of Worms and Savage Tide. With WotC pulling back the licensing agreement for Dungeon, Paizo moved forward with their Pathfinder Adventure Path series, which has thus far proved to be successful.

With that short history recap, this brings us up to the present, but what does it really mean? I think we have to go back to the definition of campaign. In the early days, there was not a lot of material available. Dungeons had to be big by default, as demand was high, but the supply of adventures was very low. Gary did not start with a full line of adventures already produced; rather he started with Greyhawk, and expanded it to meet the demand of his players. I also suspect that as he became busy with TRS, it was easier to expand something that he already had, rather can continually created brand new material.

As the game became more popular, and the experience of players grew, the natural result was a sense of pride and accomplishment with what they created with their characters. When a player starts a new character in a long term campaign, there is the expectation that this character could reach the high levels. To be honest, I do not think this is a bad thing, and I think this is fundamental to the enjoyment of the game. Part of the joy of the game includes telling bardic stories of heroic feats of valor, from a character perspective. Not to be under estimated, GM’s enjoy recounting the games in which their players did noteworthy things. I will call this the Valhalla experience, as the tales become a thing of legend through their continual retelling over food and drink.

One could argue that the adventure path is the natural progression of the game. I will say that in any game that continues to have support material created, evolution will occur. As experience in game play is gained, trends will develop. In this case, I will hypothesis that adventure paths are the Darwinian result of game evolution.

But is that good or bad? Do players, and I am thinking of both GM’s and players, find adventure paths more enjoyable than the old sandbox campaign? One thing that I have noticed is that everyone plays the game slightly differently. Now clearly this does not help to answer the question, but I think we can still make some generalizations that give deeper insight into the question.

I am convinced that no player likes extreme railroading on a rigid, predetermined story arc. There is not the same level of accomplishment that exists with this style of play. One could just read a book and cross of the main character’s name and substitute a player’s name. This is not very fulfilling. What is fulfilling is carving out a legacy that included risk and reward. I am going to go on a tangent here for a moment, and compare D&D to gambling. One of the reasons that there is an attraction to gambling is that the outcome is unknown. There is risk in terms of money loss, and there is reward, which could be several times the amount wagered. While I agree that no one likes losing, it is this risk of losing that makes winning extremely satisfying, and keeps one coming back. This is why we enjoy sports, we feel for the underdog, and we revel in the upset. The longer the odds, the sweeter the taste of victory. All of us feel this way to some extent, and we can recognize this trait in our human make up. I hesitate to call it apart of our DNA, but I do believe it is in there somewhere.

The folks that play D&D feel this to some extent. We play to see our characters advance, and to have that shared experience of accomplishment. An adventure path done right plays right into this concept. It provides a series of scenarios that offer the possibility of character growth to a given level. The reward of advancement is built into the adventure design. I think this is the core of the argument for the adventure path as the natural evolution of D&D.

So where does this leave the sandbox, and why does the old guard hold on to this design philosophy? Part of the answer is in rebellion to the forced story arcs in which the risk has been watered down to a point, where the reward does not feel satisfying. The old guard wants the higher risk of advancement that comes with no guarantees of success. Finally, there is also the desire for choice and accomplishment.

This brings us to Freedom of Choice in the D&D game. We talk a lot about it, but do we really want it? In part 2 on this topic, I will dig a bit more in the sandbox design, and discuss a more about Choice.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What is D&D: Indiana Jones v. Superman

Professor Jones or Clark Kent?

I have been thinking about this basic question quite a bit, which brings me back to the opening question of the series, “What is D&D?” Are players heroes or just explorers looking for lost treasure? When designing adventures, this is really a fundamental question. Without a doubt, players often become unlikely heroes, in that over the course of an adventure they disrupt the BBEG, but is the focus of the game really about heroic actions? Recent adventure design would seem to indicate that the latter is where the game is headed, but is that really the right direction? Is there a right direction?

To go back to my opening question and compare and contrast Superman to Indiana Jones, there are some subtle differences that are interesting in this debate. Superman is a hero by definition. He has answered a higher calling, and has dedicated his life to being the hero. There is no question to which side of the fence he is on, regardless of what the writers plot out for him in any given episode or plot arc. He is the classic example of a traditional hero. There are no selfish motives on his part, and he always answers the call of the hero. He is not an accidental hero, but rather he is the shining example of the hero.

Professor Jones is a bit different. His past is a bit checkered, and he has not always acted out of an altruistic higher purpose. He is first and foremost a college professor of archaeology. When opportunities present themselves, he becomes something of a treasure hunter. Now I am going to assume that early in his career he was a more traditional archaeologist, but as time went by, he become more interested in more eclectic archaeology. The character is clearly a throwback to the old serial and pulp adventures of the early 20th century. While one can argue that he is heroic in nature, I would say that he is more of an accidently hero, rather than someone that is out to save the world as a full time gig.

I can remember the first game I played, which was using the Holmes rule set, and the dungeon that I went through was B1 In Search of the Unknown. I rolled up a fighter, and I can remember that his stats were nothing special, yet I ventured forth looking for the unknown, as I had no idea what to expect. The first monster I encountered was a fire beetle, which I was able to defeat easily. It was shortly there afterwards, I was attacked by several bandits, and that was the end of my first character. In the creation process and as I was going through, I had no thoughts of saving the world or defeating some BBEG, but rather I was an explorer in search of treasure and the unknown.

Fast forward some twenty five years later, give or take a couple of years, I ran a bunch of folks through my Ptolus campaign, and the concept of characters as heroes, factored strong in the design of the adventure. The characters were hired to confront chaos, and the underlying assumption of the campaign was that they were heroes. When I was running the campaign, I did not give much thought to the question of hero v. treasure hunter. It was only some time after the end that I started to give this some serious thought. In my next campaign, I am going back to the concept of players as treasure hunters in the vein of Indiana Jones.

One of the trends that I am seeing more of is the concept of adventuring guilds that are built into campaign worlds. This concept has a lot of appeal for me. In Monte’s Ptolus, he built in the Delver’s Guild as a place for characters to start their career. In Paizo’s Golarion, they have the Pathfinder Society, in which their members are described as, “.. part archeologist, part historian, and part foolhardy adrenaline addict.” There is a pulp fiction feel to these adventurer guilds that resonates well with me, and I would like to work that into my next campaign, and I might even stick in both of them.

However, even though the stated theme for my next adventure is characters as adventurers, I still ponder a bit on the central question of the series, ‘What is D&D?” Is it save the world or is it exploration for the sake of exploration?

While I have not directly answered my opening question, I will continue to explore it more in my next blog entry.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Review: Chaositech (Malhavoc Press)


Prior to 3rd edition being published, Monte Cooke was developing and play testing what would become Ptolus, which was the test bed for 3rd edition. Shortly after 3rd edition came out, Monte left WotC, and started his own company, Malhavoc press, which according to his website specializes in,” ... unusual magic, monsters, and evocative elements that go beyond traditional fantasy,” and I would agree with that statement. Out of his work on Ptolus would come a number of supplements and adventures that were published under the Malhavoc Press imprint. Eventually Monte would release his masterpiece Ptolus, which ties these earlier works together. I remember when he released Chaositech, back in 2003, and I was seriously considering buying it at that time, but for some reason I did not. When Monte released Ptolus in the summer of 2006, Chaositech was one of the bonus products included in the CD that was attached to the big book. This was an unexpected find, and I was very glad that it was included. Just recently I printed it out and after looking through it again, I could not resist writing a review on it.


In general, the layout is very good, and I am going to gush a bit about it. Malhavoc Press benefits from having Sue Cook as the editor (as she is a very good one) and she is the one that ensures that everything hangs together. There are a number of elements that I think separates this product from similar products done by other companies. I have always been critical of other third party products that have no table of contents or incomplete ones. In my opinion, there is no excuse for not having a good table of contents. Malhavoc’s tables of contents sections are always very complete. I bring this out as a general example of the care and attention that goes into their products, and this one is no different. Another point that I will bring out is the number of sidebars with insightful information. When reading through this product, one gets the feeling that the author is speaking directly to the reader, and sharing in the behind the scenes look at the product. I am just a big proponent of sidebars, especially insightful ones..

Getting back to the overall organization of the book. The book has six chapters, an introduction, and an appendix. The book starts off by describing what chaos is, and then goes into three different kinds of Chaositech, and then wraps up with character templates, monsters and Chaositech items. It is a very logical flow, and very easy to follow. There are other third party publishers that could learn a thing or two


The artwork is done in the typical Malhavoc style. I write that because the products produced by Malhavoc have a very distinct style about them, with a color cover and black and white interior, that is very different than the earlier versions of D&D. The cover is done by RK Post, and his style reminds me of Brom’s work. The interior art does hang together very well, as the style is consistent throughout. The interior has pencil sketch feel to it, as some of the pieces look incomplete, but it still works with the rest of the book. Some of the art is very solid, and I would say that it has an evocative feel to it.

Key features

There are a number of features that this module provides that I am going to list out below:

1. Three different flavors of Chaositech

2. A number of character options, including templates, classes, equipment, and augmentations.

3. A number of new monsters, secret organizations, and options for how to use them in one’s campaign.

4. While this source book was designed around Ptolus, it is still generic enough to be used in any campaign setting or in any edition of D&D.

Final notes

In recent years, I have seen a number of supplements make use of fluff that was originated in the early years of D&D. When D&D was first developed, good and evil were not specifically called out; rather alignments were Lawful and Chaotic, with the implication that Chaos was evil. While I am not a hard core Warhammer (or WH40K player), chaos is clearly evil. In Monte’s Ptolus world, Chaos is evil, and he goes as far as to name his secret organizations, chaos cults. As I read through the old school blogs, there is more and more of this movement to chaos as evil, rather than just calling it evil. This means that a product like Chaositech fits right in to this trend.

While I can understand the reluctance of some folks to accept technology into their campaign, I am one that likes a little bit. Chaositech gives the GM options of adding this strange technology that is different than magic and it not outright Sci-Fi. What I like about Chaositech is the role playing choices that it creates. It is clearly evil stuff, but it gives power, and creates a bit of a dilemma for the player. Even the most Puritan of players can eventually slide a bit to the dark side if exposed to choices of power.

My final comment is that even though it is written for 3rd edition, there is plenty that can be harvested for use in any edition of play. The book is loaded with interesting ideas, evocative artwork, and oozes flavor that begs for use. My last campaign was in Ptolus, which this material was specifically written for, but I am planning on using a number of elements for my next campaign

Rating: 4 1/2 Dragons (on a scale of 5)

This is one of the more interesting source books that provides more than just a rehash of the same old stuff. This book contains much darker and sinister stuff!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Interesting stuff

First thing in the mornings, I usually check on a couple of blogs before starting to look at my near infinite supply of work emails that never end. This morning, I was flipping through the various blogs, and I hit Monte’s blog that was hysterical. The topic in his blog was about the way folks mispronounce words. He starts out telling a story about the pronunciation of “nuclear,” which continually gets mispronounced, and then proceeds to blog a bit about this. In the comments that follow, there are a number of folks telling stories on words that they have had trouble pronouncing, and there are some very funny ones. I am glad to see that the professional writers, who make up words, also struggle a bit with some of them.

I think there is a natural reaction when someone points out a word that you have just totally missed on, and having that question pop into your head, “I hope I did not sound like an idiot.” Of course the answer is, “yes you did,” which is why people are laughing.
Two quick stories:

1) On Planewalker there is a file that you can download that has a number of wav files that go through the pronunciations of common Planescape words. I remember listening to a bunch of them, and I think I was probably massacring about half of them. This probably explains why I do not run Planescape campaigns.

2) When I was back in high-school, my buddy’s little sister, who was 5 years younger than me, would continually bust my chops on the pronunciation of “helicopter.” What is amusing is that after college, I flew helicopters for the Navy, but we just called them “helos,” which was probably a good thing for me.

Anyway, it’s good reading for a chuckle or two!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What is D&D?

I want to kick off a short series on, What is D&D anyway? I am continually amazed about the number of message boards, blogs, and 3rd parties that are involved in our hobby that did not exist prior to the 1970’s. Some folks call this a fad, as its popularity is down from its peak, but there are still a large number of folks that are still in the hobby in one form or another, so I can hardly call it a fad. GenCon continues to attract a large number of folks every year, and it does not show signs of slowing down. So back to my opening question, so what is D&D, and why do we engage in edition wars, and argue passionately for one style of play over another?

Over on the Necromancer boards, the question was asked, what is the D&D brand, and that question morphed a bit in the comments that followed. I am enclosing a modified version of what I wrote about a year ago on this topic.

I personally think its about the shared experience and the creation process, so the question is, “what is the D&D experience?"

To me it’s the chance to be a part of the adventure. When reading a book, you are enjoying reading about someone else's adventure. But with D&D you are the hero, and you have people around you that:

1) Recognize your heroic nature
2) Become bards to your heroic journey
3) Provide a unique shared experience

In a sense D&D gives you a chance to answer the call to adventure. When a game hits on these elements, it is very powerful, and that is why I play D&D.

There are a couple of follow on topics that I want to hit on, to address style, setting, playing, and creating, but I will save that for tomorrow’s blog.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Six is good!

Normally I just focus this blog on game stuff, but the Superbowl is a game..right? Its just a really big game.

Superbowl 43 wrap.

Steelers make it 6! Pretty amzing considering there are some teams that have not even made it to one. On my other blog, I have typed up a couple of notes on my Shanghai experience watching the Superbowl. It was a little different, but still a good time.

Highlight videos.