Thursday, March 26, 2015

Castle Keepers Guide - The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Overview

A new printing of the Castle Keepers Guide for Castles & Crusades is soon to be released by Troll Lord Games.Once upon a time this book seemed like vapourware and it sometimes seems like a miracle that it ever came out at all. It's story is a long and challenging one and its not within the scope of this already lengthy examination to recount it. I don't think I'd ever been so excited about an RPG book release since I discovered the original AD&D hardcovers and when Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures came out during my youth. It is for this reason that the language I use may become passionate and that my praise and criticism of this work might seem somewhat exaggerated.

This book is credited to Davis Chenault, Stephen Chenault with Casey Christofferson and James M. Ward with further contributions by Mark Sandy, Mike Stewart and Robert Doyel.&Cover art, logos, logo designs (pretty sure logos covers that) and layout by Peter "20 Dollar" Bradley. Interior art by Peter Bradley, Larry Elmore and Sarah "Dreamie" Walker. Edited by Tim Burns, Christina Stiles, Mark Sandy and Derrick Landwehr. Some of the above names did something heroic here while the contributions of others can best be described as akin to criminal in its incompetence.

My copy of the CKG. Showing wear after only a few years.

Although this book has a great many things to enjoy about it, the initial print run is far from perfect. I was super glad to have this book in hand but it's shortcomings left me more than a little disappointed. The new printing promises to fix some of these issues but this post and future related ones seek to look at the quality of the first run of this very interesting tome.

What it says on the tin.

First we will look at the book itself - its appearance, general content and construction, then we'll move on to the written content and interior art in subsequent posts. Below is an overview of the book and some of its major characteristics.

• Great new ideas and options
• All the basics for a universal system
• New Larry Elmore art

This book is full of new ideas regarding characters, magic, equipment, setting, and game mechanics.
If you thought there was something missing from the Players Handbook then you're likely to find it and much more here.

There is enough material to put together a game in any genre you could imagine. I'd like to see TLG print this and the PHB as one genre neutral volume and present it as something that could be called the "Siege Masters Manual". Its not presented as a universal system but you could build one from it if you wanted to.

Larry Elmore contributes a number of new illustrations to this book, many of them full page. Although I won't call them bad or ugly they would benefit from a little lightening in the printing to reveal detail and would be much better presented in colour where the originals were created in colour.

• Recurring reference to game balance (a change of direction from other TLG publications)
• Some overly complicated rules
• Font size, print clarity and misprinted headers

You really don't need balance in a game where there are no winners and losers. Balance really wasn't an issue in other C&C publications and its funny that it gets so much mention here because the Castle Keeper's adjudication is what makes the need for balance unnecessary.

For me some of the new rules are over complicated like the chapter on NPCs for example. Its not ugly as these are just options and if you like that level of complexity its there for you - I just don't really care if they are adherents, henchmen or hirelings. To it's credit this book often brings up what they refer to as the Tyranny of Rules, essentially warning not to overcomplicate the game and to make choices that improve the game rather than hinder it.

The proofing of this book appears to have been sloppy considering there were four editors. Perhaps they didn't work as a team or some errors were related to layout. In some cases the headers don't match the chapter and run over from the previous one (Expanding Characters runs over into Magic) or they don't match the chapter name at all (Chapter 13 Expanding the Genre has the header Chapter 13 - The Future). In terms of the font size a capital letter is 2mm so I'm likely being generous by saying that its set at approximately 9 points. I think that's a little small for this amount of reading. As you can see below the legibility issue is compounded by the poor letter quality of the printing process that I'm almost certain was laser printed.

Notice the jagged and broken lettering in the CKG - hard to read. 

AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Lettering is about the same size as the CKG - a little too small.

• Most of Peter Bradley's Artwork
• Binding
• Quality

Peter Bradley is a competent illustrator when he puts some effort into it, doesn't try to get too "creative", actually completes his drawings, and stays away from the sexier side of things which for him almost always comes off as forced and more than a little creepy. For the interior art work I'll talk about specific pieces in the sections they appear. 

For this post I'd like to address the artwork on the cover. WTF? Mr. Bradley your effed up use of forced perspective needs a lot of work and you should be ashamed of yourself if you accepted payment for this piece. Guy in the foreground with his huge left hand that can't anatomically be that far forward, considering his pose, to justify being so huge compared to the right hand - just weird. Doorway to the left of him that somehow appears to need to fit on the width of a single step and isn't parallel to the column in front of it to make any sense perspective wise. It bleeds of onto the back cover were it shows the door's threshold being crossed by the steps and blocked by the column - amateurish. Looking closelyat some real life architecture would probably help here. The other side of the image has a dwarf with his disappearing foot that sinks into the step - weak. Strange cloud blob to the far right - is that stone or a spell effect or what? It only makes sense as a way to disguise the poor drawing here and obscure any step lines right below the window that would make the angle it is on appear even more ridiculous - the opening should be in perspective to the door. Another big hand on the spell caster attacking the dwarf. Its almost as wide as she is but it at least looks like a hand so it's better than some of his previous efforts - terrible. I won't get into the redesign of the logo that I've already ranted about on the C&C forums but basically it's a piece of shit and if you can't agree with me on that you need new eyes. I can't believe they let this guy have his own paragraph in the acknowledgments.

The binding is sub par. Its got a loose and floppy feel. The front cover just kind of hangs there and almost folds back on itself. I recall the guys at TLG having indicated that this helps the book lie flat but any properly casebound (or hardcover - not hardback ok Trolls, please stop calling it that, please) should lie flat. The gluing is sloppy and the trimming is uneven. 

Limp CKG.
The DMG shows its quality over 30 years later.

There is no headband in the binding - just a lot of lumpy glue. The DMG also lacked headbands but everything I own published by TLG does have them except Monsters & Treasure of Aihrde, Of Gods & Monsters (both of which were produced with the same crappy in house publishing methods as the CKG) and my two copies of the second printing of Monsters & Treasure, one of which is a leatherette version. It's a level of quality and detail that perhaps I'm being overly fussy about but as far as I'm concerned this is the crowning achievement of Castles & Crusades, so why does it have to be made so poorly?

As for quality the CKG does however appear to be bound with signatures (two or more sheets of paper stacked and folded as a group) so single pages or small groups of pages are not likely to fall out (unlike my Dangerous Journeys Mythus book). It hasn't fallen apart yet and that's at least better than many people's copies of the 5e Player's Handbook that didn't incorporate signatures in it's binding (and that book is a whopping $49.95 or $58.00 in Canada - for shame).

1e DMG lacks a headband but binding is at least neat and professional.

CKG sloppy craftsmanship. 

C&C Players Handbook with the same trade dress as CKG pictured above. CKG should look this nice.

The over-all quality of my copy is poor for a finished product. Its pretty for a unique proof copy or a hero prop for a movie but as a production item meant to be used for reference over a number of years it's lacking. My copy of the book appears to have been produced with a laser printer for its interior and the exterior seems to be printed to adhesive vinyl that's been wrapped around cardboard to form the outer cover. Its plastic-like and the image has rubbed off revealing the white vinyl below. I guess that's ok for some people but its beyond the pale in my opinion for a book with a $39.99 price tag (the DMG was $15.00 in 1982 - that's about $34.50 in 2010 dollars (the year the CKG was first published) making the CKG about $5.50 more than the much better produced DMG - and if you want a PDF that costs about $20 extra - expensive for a PDF and should really be free for those who purchased the print version. The interior copy is also unusually small and fuzzy. Its my understanding that this book has much more content than was originally intended and that the guys at Troll Lord wanted to keep a strict page count in order to keep the retail price down and that's why I'm guessing the type is so small. I would have paid more for something more legible.

That's the good, the bad and the ugly for an overview of the Castle Keepers Guide. Although it sounds like I'm tearing this book a new one, most of my issues with it are cosmetic. The wealth of ideas it presents takes an already great game system and knocks it out of the ballpark into amazing (or is that Shift Z*). I really love this book and I think everyone else that likes fantasy RPGs should too - but there is nothing to this dog's breakfast of a production run to make you want to do that if you don't already love C&C. It's just upsetting to look at it because if they had made a couple of different choices, put the effort into sourcing some additional talented artists and outsourced the printing and binding so that the quality matched the Players Handbook of the same trade dress, this would have been something special.

The following three posts will deal with the contents of each of the three parts of the book.

Part One - The Character
Chapter 1 - Expanding Characters
Chapter 2 - Magic
Chapter 3 - Expanding Equipment
Chapter 4 - Non-Player Characters

Part Two - Worlds of Adventure
Chapter 5 - Worlds of Adventure: The World
Chapter 6 - Worlds of Adventure: The City
Chapter 7 - Worlds of Adventure: Dungeons
Chapter 8 - Air and Water Adventure
Chapter 9 - Equipment Wastage
Chapter 10 - Lands as Treasure
Chapter 11 - Going to War
Chapter 12 - Monster Ecology
Chapter 13 - Expanding the Genre

Part Three - The SIEGE Engine
Chapter 14 - Advancing the Game
Chapter 15 - The SIEGE Engine
Chapter 16 - Treasure
Chapter 17 - Iron & Sulfer: Combat
Chapter 18 - Skill Packages
Chapter 19 - Character Death and Fates

* reference from the TSR Marvel Superheros RPG

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Gambling Your Fifth edition Character's Life

I was flipping a coin mixed in with my RPG dice and started thinking about a fun way to use a fifty/fifty probability dynamic in a game. It seemed like a basic gamble and reminded me of a simplified dice game. Gambling of coarse is always the most exciting when the stakes are high and a save or die situation came to mind as something exciting to try. 

D&D currently has the death saving throw - a series of saving throws with a target number of 10 rolled on a d20 without modifiers. Its basically a race to see what outcome is rolled three times first - 10 or over (save) or under ten (fail). 

Including the ten in the target number adds five percent.

I started thinking that I could substitute the coin flip for the d20 roll as the target number is half way and essentially an over under situation, but thinking about it further I realized that its not quite what it seems. This probably isn't a revelation to anybody that thinks about how dice and probability work but a roll of ten or over isn't a fifty percent chance either way, its a fifty-five percent chance of making a successful save. If each digit represents five percent then failure to make a death save occurs only forty-five percent of the time as 1-9 represents the range of failure. It sounds fifty/fifty but that would actually be if success was a roll of over ten.

Rolling a one counts as two failures!
So I guess if you wanted to use a coin flip to represent a death saving throw your odds would be less and that would be a real gamble.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dragons & Chess

In the eighties I remember being particularily attracted to the chess themed covers by artist Dennis Beauvais for Dragon magazine. I remember starring at these for hours while I was a kid and letting my imagination run wild.

Clockwise from top left: Artwork for Dragon Magazine 83, 118, 89, 86

Recently a new cover was commissioned for Gygax magazine and it looks like it was pulled out of the vault as it fits in so well with the previous work. Actually it's technically and compositionally superior but still very evocative of the earlier works. 

Queen Captures Queen

A few evenings ago I discovered a video of a commercial that reminded me of the Beauvais works.
Created in 1991 for the U.S. Marine Corps by ad agency JTW, I can't help but wonder if it was influenced by Dragon.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Blue Dungeon Tiles

Anyone reading this blog might have noticed that some old school looking grid maps were at my table during JimCon 4. These of coarse were the Blue Dungeon Tiles from Red Kobold Games that I received shortly before the convention. They are a recent Kickstarter project that I was drawn to due to their apparent versatility, old school look and generic appearance.

Start setup for Dungeon Crawl Classics

I didn't get as much use as I had hoped at the convention due to a low turnout at the table where I was going to use them the most. I did get to use them to great effect in another game that for the most part was designed to work in the theatre of the imagination. That of coarse was "The Future King". As the adventure progressed I found it got more complex. I started using one of the tiles to keep track of initiative and survival points (HP). Then a complicated melee at a ford with a river monster had my players wanting to visualize where everyone was. We didn't even use miniatures, we just marked where everyone was with a dry erase marker and made adjustments when needed. It worked out great.

Used tactically for a complicated river melee and to track combat.

I found the tiles quite versatile. You can make up small areas on the fly which is very convenient and if you're taking them to a convention you can pre-plan on what specific tiles you need and just bring those ones. They work with dry erase, non-permanent (some people call these wet erase) and permanent markers (you need to draw over with dry erase markers if you use these). In my set up for my DCC game I found I was drawing a lot of lines on the joint between the tiles. Don't do what I did which was to try to speed up my cleanup and use a dry erase cleaning fluid on the tiles to remove my permanent process blue marker. The fluid ran over the laminate on the edge and wicked into the paper  stock of the tile leaving a small blue stain. Stick with using a dry erase marker for removal of permanent markings as its less messy. 

The tiles arrive.

One drawback I found with the tiles was that all the pre-designed features are practically useless for replicating RPG maps in adventures (at least the ones I seem to own and other old school designs). That's because the walls are drawn in as a filled in grid width and walls just aren't drawn in that thick in most older adventure designs and in quite a few new ones as well. They are great for creating structures on the fly (like shops, towers, forts etc.) or for designing buildings and dungeons for custom scenarios. That being said the backs of most of theses tiles are just a grid with no features so you can easily draw in what you need yourself making the tiles themselves far from useless. 

a lot of tiles!

In terms of tiling these on the game table I found that they work best if you can assemble portions ahead of time with blue painters tape. You can use the tape to create custom map features on the top or place it on the bottom to simply keep tiles together. As with most tiling systems keeping the tiles from moving apart can be a bother, but all the tiles are square, uniform and flat which makes things as easy as you can get without having some sort of interlocking system like Tact-Tiles.

A treasure in tiles

Overall I'd say Blue Dungeon Tiles are a 4 out of 5. I really like them and will likely be using them at the table for years to come. I'm also planning on using them to assist in the design of some of my forthcoming custom dungeons for 5e. I can see these being super useful if you were to utilize Appendix A: Random Dungeons from the 5e DMG.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

JimCon 4

JimCon 4

For some reason I'm posting again about events that happened weeks in the past. I could just let them be events in the past but this is another one that I would like to talk about here.

Once again JimCon lived up to its promise of being "Winnipeg's Table Top Games Convention". Held again at the Bronx Park Community Centre which is for the most part a great place to play with plenty of room and is a fairly new building. Here are my personal highlights of JimCon4.

Friday November 14
This turned out to be more of a low than a highpoint, but such is the way of volunteering to run games at cons. I was running the level 1 DCC RPG adventure "Rat King's Maze of Death" from the back of the 'Chained Coffin" module. Adventure prepped: check, weird dice: check, maps and minis: check, players: nope. Looks like no one signed up to play any DCC this year though its been relatively popular in the past and I've run it at the previous year's JimCon and the last two KeyCons. Turns out that there was interest after all as I found out later but players were too enticed by 5e D&D or were involved with Pathfinder. So maybe not enough interest? Perhaps Friday isn't the best time? I'm thinking of running some DCC next year but only if I notice some genuine interest over the coming year. In any case I eventually ended up playing Star Wars Age of Rebellion and generally socializing.

Weird Dice: check, Players: nope.
Saturday November 15
So I slept in and missed playing the Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game Tournament. But alls well that ends well because I got to finally run something I've been wanting to play for some time. Tom Moldvay's "The Future King". The following was my write up for the adventure.

From the author of the 1981 D&D Basic Rulebook and adventures such as “Isle of Dread”, “Castle Amber” and “The Lost City” comes Tom Moldvay's 1985 RPG adventure “The Future King” Play one of six historical heroes: Doc Holiday, Nostradamus, Bruce Lee, Harald Hardraada, Owen Glendower, and Cyrano de Bergerac who have been gathered together out of the mists of time. Their mission is to find and wake King Arthur, for it is time that he again don the mantle of kingship. All the rules to play are included in the adventure itself. Rules light and simple to learn and play.

It took about 5 hours to play but it was one of the craziest adventures I'd ever seen. Somewhat more of a railroad in format than I am used to but still full of wonder the players and myself enjoyed. Two Players ran all six characters to great effect. Many surprises and an ending that satisfied beyond expectation. Clearly Moldvay is a master of the craft.

Nostradamus and Bruce Lee quest to resurrect King Arthur

Sunday November 16
Another short day (Friday is in the evening only and Sunday in the morning and afternoon) and this one was spent playing Doctor Who Adventures in Time and Space. We played the recently released "Cat's Eye" scenario about an alien hive mind that takes over a group of feral cats that are sharing an abandoned building with a community of squatters.  I recruited a couple of guys that were planning on playing Dungeon World,  that appeared interested in playing Doctor Who. One played Amy Pond and the other was Craig Owens, the Eleventh Doctor's Roommate. Everyone seemed rather excited see how a game without the Doctor would turn out – it was brilliant. After the main investigation and initial conflict another person was interested in giving the game a try and they jumped in as the Doctor just in time for the climax. It was a really good ending and the surprise appearance by the Doctor really helped add the finishing touch. This game is always a crowd pleaser when I run it and I always have players that have never played it before so I'm actually surprised I haven't seen it being played in public anywhere. This game also made me observant of the fact that its fun to be able to sit down at a table of strangers, play a game and get up from a table of friends.

Overall a great time once again at JimCon. In fact this year there were more interesting games to play than I could fit in to the three days. Next year I'm sure will be just as good.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

D&D 5e Addresses Pathfinder's Strange "Core Assumption"

The following is a previously unpublished commentary from several years ago on aspects of game design and the design principles inherited by the designers that carry on with the 3e tradition.

A reinforcement of individualism rather than group play based on the false idea that players have to have the same advantages built into their characters as other (opposing?) players in a game with no winners or losers. Why build fairness into a game where fairness has no advantage?

Instead this creates a disadvantage requiring a way to customize the character in order for them to not be essentially similar to one another. The current myth is that the traditional class system of older editions with its advantages (strengths) and disadvantages (weaknesses) between classes creates cookie cutter characters. I hold to the idea that in some way your character is how you play it - thus a roleplaying game – not a stat driven character game. In truth this balancing approach leads to the need for specific customization and larger than life heroics to differentiate one class from one another.

Superpowers (AKA Feats) and Imagination Discouragement.

3e and its descendants like Pathfinder assume balance and discourages the creation of magical items and spells that replicate the abilities of other classes. At the same time the feats grant those same abilities to the other classes.

Here the DM is discouraged from creating "unbalanced items" and pruning his imagination in order to preserve balance and the status of the games super powers

Seriously there is no reason why you wouldn't be able to wear ten magical rings, WTF.

In the Post TSR era the fantasy roleplaying game has become a game that uses the rules to make it a players game and bully the DM into creating his campaign to conform to the rules rather than the dictates of the imagination.


How things have changed in the world of RPGs since then. It's great to see that the creative team behind the new D&D has shifted the balance of power back into the GMs court. There is no need for bizarre game mechanic based magic item limits because you can't simply go purchase magic, you need to find it/earn it. Character customization is achieved through a choice of class and background. Class features are prominent again because skills are limited to proficiency that ranges from +2 to +6 (in addition to bonuses provided by class features) and feats are optional, limited and designed to represent expert training over time and not manifest as an almost superhuman ability beyond the abilities of the most highly trained human being. Once again level 1 characters are not heroes, they're adventurers and their status as a hero can and should be determined by their adventures and how successful and heroic they perform. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Gameplay Update - Ghostbusters Halloween 2014

So I promised that I would write about this session so here it is.

Currently I am playing in a group that meets every Wednesday evening at out FLGS. At the time we were playing Star Wars Edge of the Empire. Because Halloween was coming up and I had been thinking about doing this for years now I suggested that we take the Wednesday closest to the 31st (that being the 27th) to play a one shot of the WEG/Chaosium Ghostbusters RPG. Everyone agreed so I got the process started. I had about a month.

Didn't get a chance to read it

I wanted to make it present day and I wanted to make it local (Winnipeg, Manitoba).
Step one involved printing out a PDF of more contemporary equipment cards that I had downloaded some years earlier. Next I had to come up with a plot and I wanted it to somehow involve local hauntings. That wasn't too hard to research as there are plenty documented. There is a tour that someone organizes that I had wanted to go on previously to research this but I just couldn't make the time. A new book on the subject come out the day before the game day unfortunately allowing me little time to utilize that. What I ended up with was a combination of historic sites and local themes that I rolled into a mass haunting event based in the tone of two Ghostbusters movies. Watching these on Netflix made up my final step before getting down to the writing.

The plot centered around a once in a millennium event that sees the nature spirit Manitou manifest at the convergence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice (Halloween). This time however something is different. The construction of the Manitoba Legislative Building (constructed 1913-1920) about 1200m from where the two rivers meet has drawn Manitou to the occult energies contained in the structure. Manitou is unable to completely materialize, instead the energies of the spirit start to enhance the haunted locals of the area.

Hotel Fort Garry

The Ghostbusters Winnipeg franchise have been called to the Hotel Fort Garry to conduct an inspection for the hotel on behalf of a wealthy Philanthropist - Mrs. Mueller-Spears who wants to make sure her departed husband's ghost won't be appearing. Mueller-Spears has just ridden herself of his haunting spirit a few months ago. His ghost would appear in their home stinking of liquor and rambling on about the annual Halloween fundraising event he would put on every year (his favourite social outing). This is the first time Mrs. Mueller-Spears will be putting on the event without Mr. Spears and  she want's to make sure it goes off without a hitch. 

The Hotel manager Winston MacKenzie is loath to call in the Ghostbusters after he hired them several years ago to remove the ghost in Room 202. The destruction and chaos they caused has left a bad taste in his mouth when it comes to Ghostbusting.

The players selected one of several pre-gens to play, gave them names and selected equipment.  The Hotel, located between where the rivers meet and the Legislative building is currently awash in ectopresence because it is Halloween and Manitou is manifesting tonight.

The player characters, Cherry, Danny, Manny, Cory and Craig start investigating the hotel when they run across the ghost of Mr. Spears and a group of his ghostly buddies who are basically obnoxious drinking and smoking business men. Playing music in the room causes a number of ghostly strippers to appear. Cherry eventually conga lines them into a ghost trap. During the attempt the group manages to explode a proton pack and destroy one of the hotel's ballrooms. Phone calls come in from Edwina Richardson, their secretary regarding reports of paranormal occurrences close to where they are. One is of a spectral horseman and several nineteenth century footmen across the river in St.Boniface and another is of the 5.25 meter tall Golden Boy statue from on top of the Legislative Building coming to life and heading down Broadway toward the hotel. Meanwhile a portal opens up behind the false fireplace in the Hotel's "Gateway Room" where Mr. Spears's Ghost and his buddies emerged. Likely a magical circle hidden in the room from some past occult gathering, the portal is now a rip in spacetime created by the stress of the paranatural displacement caused by the Legislative Building's lightning rod effect on the materialization of Manitou.

Golden Boy (Eternal Youth)

Cherry then has to deal with the lounge waitress Kerri Romanchuck who is an ex-girlfriend. The rest have to deal with the hotel manager and the newly arrived Mercedes Kuntz from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Needless to say they don't want anyone else to see the portal or the destruction the've already caused. 

The game concluded with discovering a possible way to close the portal and send back Manitou for another thousand years. Conversing with Paranormal Presenter and hotel guest Doctor Glau along with Mrs. Meuller-Spears, they find out that the silver dream catcher she used to get rid of her husbands ghost at home is just the thing needed to banish Manitou into the portal and close it. The problem is that the Golden Boy is just outside the Hotel crushing  things and the Horsemen and his footmen - now identified as the ghosts of Lois Riel and a number of Red River Rebels -  have taken over the site of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the site where Mrs. Mueller-Spear's dreamcatcher resides after being donated.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

With a little luck and the assistance of their Eco-Van and Overly Eager Policeman Donald MacConnel, some of the Ghostbusters are able to keep the Golden Boy from advancing any further while the others break past Louis Riel and grab the silver dreamcatcher. 
Firing a proton blast throught the dreamcatcher at the Golden Boy, they are able to trap Manitou's spirit from inside and send it into the portal, closing it. 

There were a lot of laughs at both successes and failures during the game and everyone had a good time playing. I'd like to do something similar next year.

During my research for this I discovered Ghostbusters Resurrection, a podcast of a group playing this game. They also have a page of resources if you want to get into this amazing (out of print) RPG yourself.

Get these while you can.