Corebooks and Supplements: The Cart Before the Horse

I have a knack for acquiring expansions and supplements to games before getting the core elements themselves. It started back in the days of voraciously devouring TSR’s Dragonlance novels without ever realizing they were tied to a game at all, let alone a roleplaying game or what that constituted. Despite the fact the local Waldenbooks — this was back in the days before Borders came to Burlington; Waldenbooks was the place to go for the widest selection of Dungeons & Dragons-related stuff, outside of Quarterstaff Games, which I wasn’t aware of at the time — had an entire tier of shelves devoted to the game books right next a tier full of fantasy novels, including the better part of the TSR fiction catalog at that time, it was some time before I made the connection.

Somehow, in the midst of my paper route-fueled mission to buy and read every Dragonlance novel I could find, I bought the AD&D Player’s Guide to Dragonlance Campaign Setting. I didn’t get the part about it being a player’s guide, nor understood why it was completely different in form and design. Reading it, I also remember a sense of puzzlement over why the information in this encyclopedic-like book was subtly different in places from what I knew to be correctly related by the novels — that the novels routinely contradicted each other was another, separate source of mystification to my eleven year old self.

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“It’s Like Risk, Only Different.”

It’s never easy explaining a hobby game, for lack of a better term to differentiate mainstream stuff like Monopoly from what you would find in the average local game store, to casual passers-by. They want to know what it’s about and there never seems to be a good way to explain because the goals or theme are so different from what you find in the most well known board games. Usually I try to make a weak analogy, “It’s like this other game you have probably heard of, only different,” and that satisfies them enough to go away feeling like they got an answer.

One night, I played Antike with two others at Muddy Waters. It’s a big ol’ Eurogame about classical Mediterranean civilizations jockeying for territory and power, as they were wont to do. Three or four times, people passing by our table asked what game we were playing. After the first inquirer ventured to ask if it were a version of Risk, that became our go-to answer.

The moment that threw me most was when one person pointed out Israel on the game board. He seemed so pleased by the notion that Israel was a force in a Risk-like game that we didn’t have the nerve to tell him that region wasn’t Israel, per se.

Why Would Anyone Say No?

When I first seriously started nosing around roleplaying games in 2002 or so, one of my first stops after Sorcerer’s Place’s Baldur’s Gate sub-forum for pen and paper games was Wizards of the Coast’s own forums. I didn’t delve deep or for long, because most of the discussion was opaque to me, not being familiar with the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. A few things leapt out at me at the time, and still stick with me as being curious.*

One example in particular came up in the section meant for GMs to discuss their tricks and quandaries. A poster related the story of how, during play, a player asked if their wizard character could tear a spell out of their spellbook and cast it as a spell scroll — i.e., it would burn up or fade away or whatever it is scrolls do when they’re used. In the context of the story, it was an emergency, last ditch effort. At the time, I thought it was a wonderfully creative thing to do and didn’t understand why anyone would object to such a notion.

To be honest, I still don’t fully understand the reasoning behind the objections at the time. Yes, it sets a precedent of casting spells one hasn’t prepared by ripping them out of one’s tome of eldritch lore, but it comes at the cost of not having the spell anymore, as well as having damaged the repository of your arcane might.

I probably still don’t fully understand the economies of spells and spellcasters in Dungeons & Dragons, but at that time and still now, I think it’s a fantastic idea and would totally want to be able to say yes to a player who’s got that gleam of desperately grasping at any straw to pull victory from the maw of ignoble failure.

* Another thing I didn’t get then and still don’t get now were the myriad objections to the so-called SPUM, or Spell Point-Using Mage.

Bakuretsucon 2003

In honor of my recent trip to Bakuretsucon and to tie-in with A Shaky Start to the Convention Experience, here’s a report I wrote and posted to RPG.net of my first outing to that convention.

Flashback! Bakuretsucon 2003 was my first convention with a game element to it. I had attended a few local comic book shows in the mid-90s, but never experienced convention culture as such. I didn’t know what to expect, particularly because my game-playing experiences prior to this were rather limited, consisting of a few games on a study abroad trip and a game day put on earlier that winter by Bakuretsucon staff.

This was, I should note, in the days when Bakuretsucon was a multi-genre convention, hosting anime and gaming tracks. A couple years later, they spun the focused gaming off into its own convention, leaving Baku purely anime. We can talk about that change in another post.

For a long time, I debated digging this up. A lot of people in the local gaming and nerdy scenes I’ve come to regard as friends I met at this convention, although I may not have realized it at the time. So how I perceived people then is not necessarily how I think of them now; in some cases, I was way off base in my thinking. Furthermore, I wrote this six years ago. My writing style has changed significantly since then — I think a lot of it came from trying to impress posters at RPG.net with literary flair, to be honest — and I cringe a bit to read it over now, even more than my Mage: The Suppressed Transmission session reports. But, I have decided, it’s more important to own up to one’s work. To that end, all I’ve done is change some of the styling to fit that of Held Action and link to named games.

Plus it’s a snapshot of the Burlington gaming scene as a portion of it existed in 2003. I say “portion” because in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that most gamers in Burlington weren’t interested in the proceedings, which is telling in a way of its own.

PS See if you can spot the howler with regards to RPG terminology as it exists now. If you find one other than that I’m thinking of, extra kudos to you.

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[Mage: The Suppressed Transmission] To Follow the Sun

Mage: The Suppressed Transmission is a Mage: The Ascension campaign I ran from the summer to winter of 2005 at Quarterstaff Games. I think of it as my first “real” campaign and present my session reports, mostly written just after the action, exactly as they are, excepting the occasional corrected typo.

This brings the reposting of my actual play reports for this campaign to a close. The game went on for two or more sessions after this, but I didn’t record them. I had become frustrated with what I perceived as the players declining to take the initiative and my own ability to elicit more engaging interactions from them. That the group had shrunk in size to two returning players over the five months it played did nothing to make me feel that it was a success.

In retrospect, my thinking was silly and self-important. The two remaining players kept coming back. That meant they enjoyed the game. I should have taken that fact and run with it, and really paid attention to the questions their characters asked and things they tried to do. Obvious advice that I had read before running this game, but tunnel vision gets all us when we’re emotionally invested in something.

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Judging the Cover

Image copyright Steve Jackson Games.

Image copyright Steve Jackson Games.

Arguably, the cover of GURPS Basic Set, Third Edition Revised, published by Steve Jackson Games in the 1990s, is plain and undramatic, without a strong central element upon which for the eye to focus and then travel around the scene. (For an example of that, check out the cover of Mutants & Masterminds, Second Edition.)

I first ran into this piece of work during one of my many near-hits with roleplaying. Someone on a Doctor Who mailing list — probably the now-gone House on Allen Road, maybe Jade_Pagoda — posted a link to the basement of Steve Jackson Games’ Warehouse 23, where one can roam around, opening crates in the archetypal repository of the bizarre and impossible. Eventually, I went from the warehouse to the company’s GURPS pages. The concept of modular design, where you buy books with the rule and setting elements you need to facilitate a particular concept, really appealed to me, to the point I spent a lot of time mulling over which books I would like, even though at the time I had no way to utilize roleplaying game books or even a strong conception of what roleplaying entailed.

The things I like about this cover, enough that I remembered the image from that fleeting contact years later when I really got into RPGs in mid-2002, are the combination of diverse elements, the questions they ask and overall austerity of the design.

There’s a castle, what look like mysterious ruins in the foreground, a rider on the horizon and jets taking off, all while a neighboring moon or planet hangs large in the sky. That covers a wide swathe of genres in a way that, for me, provokes questions: why is the rider going to the castle? Are the jets attacking or on patrol? Is there supposed to be a galaxy naked to the visible eye, or is that what provoked the rider and the pilots to action?

Plus, it’s a nice landscape. I wouldn’t mind a print of that to hang somewhere.

[Mage: The Suppressed Transmission] Ash and Water

Mage: The Suppressed Transmission is a Mage: The Ascension campaign I ran from the summer to winter of 2005 at Quarterstaff Games. I think of it as my first “real” campaign and present my session reports, mostly written just after the action, exactly as they are, excepting the occasional corrected typo. Continue reading

Game Store Memories

Flashback! My first visit to a game store, local institution Quarterstaff Games, happened some time around the age of twelve. I had asked for a Spelljammer box set for Christmas, having greatly enjoyed the tie-in novels. The Waldenbooks clerk forewarned us I would need special dice, and could get them down the street — why someone that knowledgeable neglected to mention that Spelljammer stuff was an add-on to the basic Dungeons & Dragons game, I’ll never know; confused, I wound up returning the box set for store credit, spending that on — probably — TSR novels.

So down I went to Quarterstaff with my mother, along Church St. through the cold, slush and shopping crowds. It was, at the time, a relatively dim store, partly thanks to the sparse lighting left over from its previous existence as a bar and the dark wooden decor. The counter, once a bar, and trim all around the store, was stained dark. It was, to my mind, very atmospheric, especially with the torches in their sconces and crossed spear and quarterstaff behind the counter.

The store was also ridiculously over-crowded with merchandise. Every available surface space had something on it. I remember in particular the stacks of dragon miniatures piled on a railing enclosing a raised level. At the time, I didn’t get how such intricate, colorful miniatures of dragons, of all things, could be packed into a flat little rectangular box.

Most of the visit is a blur now. I do remember asking the clerk what dice I would need and walking away into December’s early twilight with two of each type of polyhedral die, plus a third d6, in the inner pocket of my winter jacket. Those dice never saw action, sadly. They gathered dust and eventually disappeared.

But that marks the beginning of my relationship with Quarterstaff Games. I remember going back to browse the RPG books, and was particularly fascinated by the Encyclopedia Magica series. Later, when I encountered Magic: The Gathering in middle school, I’d make many repeat visits to the store, racking up enough purchases, with my brother, to earn the 10% discount card. I still remember the afternoon I went there with school friends and watched one of them sift through a newly-purchased starter deck to find an Aladdin’s Lamp as the rare — not that I got the concept of card rarity or how packs were sorted then.

After I got out of Magic, just as the Homelands expansion released, I didn’t go back to Quarterstaff for years, except maybe the occasional visit to admire the bizarre mix of enticing products and clutter, like the fleet of Lego pirate ships that lived in the back room with the Gauntlet arcade machine and Han Solo cardboard cut-out figure.

More than fifteen years later, Quarterstaff Games is still my go-to shop for RPGs and board games, as well as playing board games there most Tuesday nights. Admittedly, part of that is there’s little in the way of choice in Vermont for hobby stores of any stripe, but it’s also because I have history with the place. That counts for something with me.

[Casting Call] The Ghost Writer

Flashback! I originally conceived and wrote this back in the winter of 2008, posting it to UniFans.org. I decided to relocate it here for the sake of completeness. Jenny was written with C.J. Carella’s WitchCraft, published by Eden Studios, in mind, but her story is vague enough to fit into most urban fantasy or horror settings.


The Ghost Writer

Every Tuesday night for the last two months, Jenny Torres has sat down at her kitchen table at exactly 6:59 PM. When the clock strikes seven, her hand grabs a pen from the coffee mug full of them and starts writing in a fresh composition book. The curious thing is Jenny has no idea what she’s going to write. Something else controls her hand and it won’t let go until midnight.

It began when Jenny got in a car wreck. Driving home from her waitressing job late one night, Jenny’s car was T-boned by a drunk driver. The driver got a broken arm and two points on his license. Jenny got a coma. So the doctors were amazed when she woke up three days later. All Jenny could recall was leaving work, and then some vague impressions of a gray land, where people blew around like leaves on the wind, and the sense of having just had a very long conversation.
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[Mage: The Suppressed Transmission] Trial by Fire

Mage: The Suppressed Transmission is a Mage: The Ascension campaign I ran from the summer to winter of 2005 at Quarterstaff Games. I think of it as my first “real” campaign and present my session reports, mostly written just after the action, exactly as they are, excepting the occasional corrected typo. Continue reading