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Jeff's Gameblog
Thursday, 10 June 2004
Sick curiosities
I am more and more attracted to RPGs that slipped between the cracks. This started, naturally enough, with my first RPG, the '81 D&D Basic/Expert set. My fascination with this rpg (particularly Tom Moldvay's Basic rules) can be explained away as simple nostalgia. However, I think there's more there. I think perhaps that Moldvay's work really is the pinnacle of Basic-style D&D, though perhaps not AD&D. Knowing that Moldvay was the man behind Lords of Creation finally pushed me into that direction, thought the William Blake campaign info in the back was the initial draw many years ago.

I got into old games well before LoC though. I think maybe the first vintage RPG I ever purchased was the 1st edition of the Basic D&D rules, the old blue book. That was back a ways and I really only purchased it because it was in a store and it said "Dungeons & Dragons" on it. I wasn't entirely sure what I was even buying. Then came the day I picked up Superhero 2044 at a con. That hazily-remembered day, many years ago, marks my descent into being a collector of lost and forgotten games. Back when I got married I sold 2044 (among many other things) because I had to cut back my game collection to move into smaller digs with my new wife. Still, I cherish memories of it. Superhero 2044 hails from a day when an RPG could be typewritten, shoddy, and incomplete but still make a serious contribution to the hobby.

Posted by jrients at 5:20 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, 10 June 2004 5:21 PM CDT
Wednesday, 9 June 2004

The next part of my "In Praise of Bad Games" series should be about Cyborg Commando, but the going is slow. I recently acquired a copy and fell honor-bound to read the thing before I do my write-up. The prose retains all the turgid qualities of Gygax while omitting all the charm of say, the original Dungeon Masters Guide. I'm finding it very easy to blame co-author Frank Mentzer for this state of affairs. His rewrite of the D&D Basic/Expert line significantly dumbed down Tom Moldvay's brilliant version.

Posted by jrients at 9:02 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, 10 June 2004 5:00 PM CDT

I love 'nonfictionalized fiction', fiction masked as a piece of nonfiction. Examples include things like Franz Joseph's Star Fleet Technical Manual and biographies of fictional characters. Right now I'm reading Inside Sinanju, the guide to the world of Remo Williams. I haven't read any of the Destroyer series, but Pat put this book in my hand after I related to him that I finally caught the entirety of Remo Williams: the Adventure Begins on cable. I think this weekend I'll end up at the library looking for Destroyer novels.

Posted by jrients at 9:45 AM CDT
Tuesday, 8 June 2004

Geez, that SenZar piece took too dang long to write. And I'm not sure it went anywhere. Ah, well.

I was really hoping to get some feedback on my Enochian Chess article by now. Peter, the editor who posted the article, noted that it was thorough. That was very nice, especially since I was trying very hard to be thorough.

It looks like the Heroes Unlimited game is going to be postponed, which is probably for the better. I haven't got a grip on a good idea for the next session anyway. Paul is coming over Thursday night to make a PC. Introducing a new cast member could be the focus of next episode.

Posted by jrients at 5:11 PM CDT
Monday, 7 June 2004
In Praise of Bad Games, Part 4
Back in the early 90's SenZar earned its rep as a bad game before it even hit the store shelves. How did it manage this tremendous feat? The authors were out on usenet promoting their game with hyperbole so outrageous, so obnoxious, so over-the-top that their behavior is the stuff of legend a decade later. Mark Hughes describes their attitude as "We are God's Own Bollocks! Lick us, we're tasty!" When these guys were properly flamed for their antics the SenZar people then went the route of the "anonymous fan" to promote their game. In case you couldn't guess, this shenangin only endeared them further to the online rpg community. Even worse, a brief perusal of the Amazon reviews seems to indicate that as late as 2002 the SenZar gang was still up to its old tricks.

To this day you'll find lots of people ready to tear SenZar a third bunghole even though they've never even seen a copy. To be sure, many people who have seen the game have also hated it. Check out David Edelstein's review for an example of a relatively informed opinion. I say relatively informed because I feel like maybe Mr. Edelstein let some personal gaming baggage get in the way of his review. More on that angle later. In the meantime, here's some other choice comments culled from teh intarweb:
If Carl wanted to run Senzar, I'd give it a try, because I'd know the people would be fun and in the worst case we could while away the hours mocking death jesters. In fact, I once joined a Lords of Creation game, fully aware of what I was getting into, because I trusted the GM. --Population: One weblog
Senzar is essentially, as far as I can tell, someone's pumped-up AD&D mods. There are a dozen or so different races, all with various abilities to "kick butt". The word "cool" is used a lot. The game seems to be geared toward the crowd that thought Beavis & Butthead was funny, without understanding that it was about *them*. --Kevin Mowery
I'm at the point now where I'd play the Lords of Creation setting under a fusion of Synnibar and SenZar rules just because it wasn't D20. --unknown
(Yikes! Do I need to do an entry on Lords of Creation too? I was under the impression that it was underappreciated, but I wasn't expecting it to be mentioned in the same breath as SenZar and Synnibarr.)

But like I was saying, a lot of SenZar's bad rep comes from the authors' hijinx and doesn't necessarily have as much to do with the game as it seems. Not that flaws can't be found in SenZar, but we shouldn't let the fact that the game is much maligned get in the way of a fair judgement of SenZar's virtues. And it does have virtues. Check out Jason Sartin's review, if you can bring yourself to read such a long review. Here's the short version of the review: Surprisingly coherent game mechanics for fairly incoherent setting, marred somewhat by a rather juvenile (if amusing) writing style.
"You know you have a bad GM when: ...he talks about converting his campaign to Senzar" --old humour list
The thing is, I can actually see myself converting an AD&D campaign to SenZar. Maybe that does make me a bad GM, but when I look back at all the yahoo fun I've had in some of my old AD&D games, suddenly SenZar, with its sense of wild fun and deadly violence, looks like a pretty decent fit. I can easily imagine taking the deadly trio of Sir Cleave the half-drow knight errant; his demi-brother Doctor Phostarius, the bard/wizard; and Munge, half-orc the assassin/cleric, uprooting them from their cushy abodes in Greyhawk's Bandit Kingdoms and dropping them into the middle of the ultraviolent godpolitics of SenZar.

The key to understanding SenZar, I think, is to judge it by its own standards. From the point of view of the "serious roleplayer", whatever that means, we can certainly poo-poo SenZar as a juvenile powertrip. But I fail to see the point of such an exercise, since SenZar never claims to be anything more than a munchkin's dream. The text of the game actively encourages making the most deadly PC you can. Heck, one of their taglines is "role-playing in God mode".

Evan Waters makes a comment at the end of Darren MacLennan's review of Creeping Death, the SenZar monster manual. Mr. Waters says
[I]t's telling that the majority of monsters in the book have no place in the natural ecosystem, but are rather "unspeakable fiends from beyond Hell."
If we were talking about a "realistic" fantasy simulation on the order of Harn or even Greyhawk, I would wholeheartedly agree with him. But I think we would do better to judge SenZar by its own lights, much in the manner that Roger Ebert critiques action flicks. A once-over of the official SenZar webpage ought to make it clear that the game is meant to be an utterly juvenile powertrip with big swords, big muscles, chicks with big boobs, and heinous acts of violence. To expect it to be something else is missing the point. Normal folk don't rip up copies of People magazine because it lacks the journalistic integrity of U.S. News & World Report.

Taken as the RPG equivalent of lowbrow action flicks, SenZar seems to have everything going for it. At least according to Mr. Sartin's interesting review. In the realm of killing things and taking their stuff, SenZar looks to be a choice worth investigating. Chargen is an interesting pointbuild system married to an oldfashioned class & level affair. Hit points are fixed amount per level, no more getting hosed by a bad hitdie roll. The spell system is described as tight. All in all, I think SenZar could be a vehicle for serious gamist powermunching in an over-the-top, death-at-any-moment setting. What's not to like? The fact that the monsters are in a separate book is about the only thing that really holds me back from getting my hands on some SenZar.

One of the standout lines from Edelstein's scathing review:
The best way to describe SenZar would be to say that this is a game I would have thought was rilly kewl when I was 14.
What happened to that 14-year-old kid, David? I play lots of different kinds of RPGs these days, but nothing has killed the joy of depopulating nonsensical dungeons full of mutant bad guys. Maybe that's why SenZar might work for me when it doesn't work for folks like David: I still got that powergaming kid inside me.

Then there's the who people try to hide that kid by moving on to Epic-level D&D or Nobilis or Amber or Exalted or superhero gaming. That way they can tell themselves how nuanced and sophisticated their play has become. I totally understand. I've been down that road before. But I think I'm starting to outgrow the need to justify my powergaming. SenZar seems more like my kind of game than Exalted ever was.

I am munchkin! Fear my wrath! Aieeeeeeee!

Bonus link: the SenZar drinking game!

Posted by jrients at 10:13 AM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, 8 June 2004 10:55 AM CDT
Sunday, 6 June 2004

So I'm slogging through this huge 35 part presentation called Life of Reilly, which details the whole Spider-Clone Saga. I wasn't reading any comics at the time this whole fiasco went down and I have never been a regular Spiderman reader, but this stuff is riveting nonetheless. The peak into the process is priceless.

I'm hoping my bud Pat will come over today, if he's free. Wednesday night after the Savage Worlds game he was kinda bummed. Maybe we could work on his Mechanoids game or just shoot the breeze. Last night my daughter decided she needed to play with my dice, so while she was messing around with them I started throwing 3d6 for stats for possible Mechanoids PCs.

Posted by jrients at 12:58 PM CDT
Saturday, 5 June 2004

Yippee! My Enochian Chess article is up at the Chess Variant Pages! It's nice to see all the work I put into it finally come to fruition. I'm a bit suprised that my earlier submission, Knight Chase, has not been posted to the site yet. I'm going to guess that it's waiting in another editor's queue. Now maybe I'm ready to get working on the article for my new large variant.

I dropped Gamma World as my current eBay search and replaced it with SenZar. I'm working on the SenZar piece as the next entry in my "In Praise of Bad Games" series. Of all the games I intend to cover, SenZar is probably the best of the lot.

I started reading the rulebooks for Cyborg Commando and I can see where people would find this game a big letdown coming from Gary Gygax. Still, on its own merits I don't think it is as bad as some people make out. I'm tempted to try a serious review of it for RPG.net. One of the reasons I started this blog was to help me get the writing chops in sufficient shape that I would feel comfortable writing for other sites. I've now got some stuff on the Chess Variants Pages, but I'm a bit more intimidated by the prospect of writing fort RPG.net. I've gotten so comfortable being one of the regular blokes there, the thought of doing a review gives me a little of that special hometown style stagefright.

Moe, my GM for the online Malls & Morons game, has posted stats for all the PCs so far. Here's my guy:
Commander Shicklegruber Nerd Trekkie 1

Str: 12 SP: 11 EP: 29
Dex: 18 AC: 17 (+2 skater pads, +4 dex, +1 class)
Con: 16 EAC: 13 (+3 class, +1 charisma)
Int: 16 Init: +8
Wis: 10 BaB: +0
Cha: 12 Tenis Racket +1 1d4+1
Fort: +3 Ref: +5 Wil: +2

Skills: Knowledge (sci-fi) (+7), Intimidate (+5), Jump (+5) Hobby (Role Playing Games) (+7), Knowledge (Physics) (+7) Knowledge (Television) (+7) Knowledge (Pop Culture) (+7) Speak: Klingon, Computer Use (+6)

Feats: Run, Improved Grope (groping does not provoke an AoO, and you get a +4 to attack), Improved Initiatve, Spaz (similar to a barbarian's rage)

Gear: Skater Pads, Tenis Racket, 10 bucks
I'm not sure what's up with the Skater Pads and Tennis Racket, but I'm just going with the flow.

Posted by jrients at 8:55 PM CDT
Friday, 4 June 2004

It looks like I'll be running my Heroes Unlmited game next Friday and I still don't have a good idea of what I want to do. If Paul will be playing again we could take up a fair amount of time introduce a new PC. And I'd really like to start out with an opening fight sequence. You know, the old "welcome to the game, please roll initiative" school of GMing. I could continue last issues plotline and have the PCs go after the leader of the HYDRA cell they busted up, but again, I'm kinda coming up dry.

I may have to fall back on the old pulp writer's trick: "Two men kick in the door, tommy guns ablazing."

Posted by jrients at 10:15 AM CDT
Thursday, 3 June 2004
Attack of the Cyber-Trekkie!
I decided to give the play-by-post game of Malls & Morons a try. Here's my preliminary post:
My guy is Anthony Schicklegruber, nerd trekkie. His friends call him Tony, or when someone really wants something from him they can butter him up by addressing him as Commander Schicklegruber. He seem to always be wearing some sort of Trek-based costume and gets very upset if it's an obscure one and nobody recognizes it:

"Hey Tony! Is that you? Where's the geek gear?"

"{snorts} I'll have you know that this is an exact replica of the outfit worn by Spock when he visited New York in the year 1930. Or have you never seen episode 28, you cretinous ker'plah?"

"Geez, man. Whatever."

There's got to be an Android's Dungeon kind of store at the mall. And at that store is the Most Fabulous Object in The World, an item of Trek memorabilia that Tony simply must have, but cannot afford. I'm thinking a bronze reproduction of Mount Rushmore but with the Presidents replaced with the visages of Star Trek captains. What will Tony do to get this treasure? Will he get a job at the Burger World in the food court? Will he dress up in drag in an attempt to win first prize in the Miss Mall beauty contest? Will he resort to crime?
"Nerd Trekkie" is actually the M&M equivalent of race and class, "nerd" being the clique Tony runs around with and "trekkie" being his class. Trekkies apparently have the ability to spazz out, sorta like a geekotron version of barbarian rage.

I just finished Planet in Peril, book one of the Cyborg Commando novel trilogy. It wasn't nearly as bad as I was braced for and I actually find myself looking forward to reading book two. I have my sister Jenn hot on the trail of the sequels, having suggested that they would make cheap birthday presents if she didn't mind hunting a little bit for them. While I'm waiting to see if Jenn comes through for me I guess I'll have to bear down and finally start to read the Cyborg Commando rpg.

Posted by jrients at 9:12 PM CDT
In Praise of Bad Games, Part 3
As far as Z-grade RPGs go, Spawn of Fashan has loads of old-school credibility. Fashan was reviled a decade before Synnibarr went to print. Even without the benefit of the internet, SoF wormed its way into the consciousness of the gaming community has a prefect example of What Not To Do. Lawrence Schick (author of, among other things, the indispensable rpg reference book Heroic Worlds) made Fashan (in)famous in a Dragon magazine review "Don't take Spawn of Fashan seriously" (Dragon #60, April 1982). In this article Mr. Schick basically takes the tack that SoF is so bad that it -must- be an intentional parody of everything wrong with fantasy role-playing games. If only that were true.

It wasn't until a few years ago, when I read Roger Wilcox's review on RPGnet, that I started to appreciate some of the good points of Spawn of Fashan. Yes, there are good points even in this, one of the all-time most ridiculed RPGs. At this point I probably don't need to tell you that SoF is a fantasy rpg with levels and classes. And you probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that, overall, the game mechanics are clumsy and poorly organized. Still, there seem to be at least two mechanics in game that merit a second look.

First off, Roger Wilcox acknowledges one sharp idea in Fashan, the level-up mechanics. Allow me to quote from Mr. Wilcox's review:

What's truly amazing about this 1981 game system, though, is that gaining a level does not automatically give you such things as increased to-hit chances, increased saving throws, more powerful abilities for your character-type, etc.. Instead, gaining a level gives you a chance to raise your statistics. It is your statistics -- strength, dexterity, reflexes, constitution, courage, senses, etc. -- that determine your ability to attack enemies, survive engagements, acquire languages and special abilities, etc.. E.g., your to-hit bonus is based entirely on your dexterity and courage, and does not derive from your level at all. Your basic saving roll modifier, likewise, derives entirely from your intelligence and courage, not from your level.

Basically, although this is a class/level system, its mechanics are characteristic based rather than experience-level based, and I have to applaud them for that. It's a concept we Champions/HERO System players are well familiar with, but which was virtually unknown by most AD&D-like role-playing games 20 years ago.
I really am starting to believe that even the worst rpgs (except maybe the big three) have at least one good idea.

The second mechanic I want to bring up is discussed and dismissed by both Wilcox and Schick: the combat system. The combat system is unwieldy in the extreme; this I do not deny. There are several times where the same roll has to be made mutliple times in a row before moving on to the next step of the cumbersome combat sequence. There's a lot of stuff to be looked up on poor organized tables. All in all, it's a ponderously slow combat system, as Wolcox's heroic attempt at a solo playtest makes clear.

To this criticism I must say, "So what?" People play rpgs with amazingly slow combat systems all the frickin' time. I personally have been to more than one session of Champions in which a single fight took up the majority of a 6+ hour session. Total elapsed game time was certainly less than five minutes of fighting. If the SoF combat rules were edited for clarity and then given some computer assistance, they may in fact kick ass. I don't know. My point is that some earlier game systems aren't as broken as they seem when modern computing power can be brought to bear.

Finally, I want to call attention to the setting material. Unlike most games nowadays, a lot of rpgs back then came with "sample" settings that weren't as inextricably hardwired into the game as in many post-Vampire rpgs. These sample settings were sketchy and could usually be completely ignored without any real difficulty. For example, the '81 Dungeons & Dragons Expert rules came with a map and brief description of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. The game ran fine without using the Grand Duchy. Heck, many D&D adventure modules came with very scant setting material so that they could be dropped into any typical swords-and-orcs type of campaign.

(Two modern examples of the sample setting design ethos can be found in Eden Studios' Terra Primate and All Flesh Must Be Eaten rpgs. Eden goes one step further and offers multiple sample settings for both its ape and zombie games. Off the top of my head, Boot Hill is about the only old school rpg I can think of that does that, with its "quasi-hostorical" and "fictional" versions of Promise City.)

Spawn of Fashan has a sample setting in its own particular idiom: "Boosboodle, a land just south of where Melvin is standing now." I am not making this up. Apparently, the little map even has an arrow pointing towards the top of the page indicating how to get to the enigmatic Melvin.

What can I say? I can't help but fall in love with a dorky little setting like that. Knowing virtually nothing but the name of the realm and the Melvin joke, I find myself irrestibly drawn towards Boosboodle. I want to trounce around Boosboodle, stirring up trouble and brawling with the local misfits. Sure, Boosboodle is not in the calibre of setting material to which I normally feel this attraction. The lands south of Melvin are no Tekumel or Glorantha or Jorune or Harn, but they may be somewhere near the league of The Fantasy Trip's Cidri or Bard Games' Atlantis or the pre-Gazetteer Karameikos. I don't think I'd ever use Fashan's rules, but I would be reluctant to pass up a chance to strap on a sword and see the sights of Boosboodle.

On last quote from Mr. Wilcox:
And always remember the last words in the rulebook:

How many Boosboodles are there in your life?

Posted by jrients at 3:38 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, 3 June 2004 5:29 PM CDT

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