Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Temple of Mishakal Squared

One of the design trends that happened around the mid 80s at TSR was the use of isometric maps, prominently displayed on the back covers of modules. Even as a youngster, when first encountering the maps, I was perplexed as to their purpose. They were visually impressive, but it was not like I was going to be handing the players the isometric map for them to look over.

Since the map was on the inside cover, and module covers were often used as DM shields / adventure information aids, I assumed the maps were a tool for the DM. But, only having flat graph paper, trying to convey the isometric drawing to a a flat graph just seemed like an extra step that was annoying.

It may be a surprise to some that I am also not a fan of the Dragonlance modules. In online discourse, I am often picking up the torch that having a bit of "story" in an adventure is a good thing, and definitely not inferior to sandbox play to my mind.

But Dragonlance, is a bridge too far, as they say. And the reason is, for my personal taste, the players should be the center of the game (at least from a playing a game at the table perspective). Now, if the players were all Dragonlance fans, or wanted to "get into" Dragonlance, then yeah, I might even buy up the source books and adventures and give it a go.

But in the 80s and even now, there is a sense of fun of having the players make their own characters, imbue quirks, change and grow as the adventures unfold, and you never know where it will all end up. Dragonlance already has a set of heroes and their journey is mapped out in a series of novels I have never read. So, even during my heyday of running games, I never collected Dragonlance.

I recently started to go back through the 12? (or more) modules, and tried to see if I could run them without tying them to the main heroes or even without tying them to the world of Krynn. I will write more about my thoughts on converting them, but for now, the first step was to convert the isometric map to a flat, regular old graph paper like map.

Back in the 80s, it was a monotonous, time consuming task, but now, it only takes a couple of transforms in an image editor to flatten them out.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

B9 Castle Caldwell

Part of my series of reviews on the Basic modules from the 80s. I had the great fortune of doing an email interview with Clyde Caldwell last year, and he confirmed that this module was named after him, even though the legal department at TSR frowned upon including a living person's name in their products. Perhaps they were afraid of ownership claims?

Caldwell painted the cover for the adventure, and I was a big fan of the artwork that was produced by TSR during that time. I am still a big fan, but now that I am older, I find I want artwork that has more action, implied movement, and shows more "adventures in their off moments". The 80s module seem to mostly (but not always) consist of Mona Lisa style portraits, where the main adventurer is striking a pose.

Castle Caldwel, the module, actually consists of 5 mini adventures, of which the first two are the ground floor and lower dungeon of a castle named Caldwell. The other 3 diverge into other locations. There isn't much holding the adventures together as a whole, but that could be to its advantage as it makes it easier to place them anywhere in the campaign.

Even as a young Dungeon Master, I did not find B9 Castle Caldwell to be as exciting as some of the other modules in the Basic series. Nothing stands out in my mind as a defining moment in the module like "Bree Yark" from B2, the magic pools from B1, or even the possessed elven maidens from B7. No, B9 is your stock medieval dungeon romp fare, with the stock monsters from the basic set without too much variation.

And even in my younger days, I just found the main castle complex to be odd. Imagine if you took the Caves of Chaos from B2, and you put them all next to each other like a motel, with a series of doors. That, in essence, is how the first floor of Castle Caldwell is laid out. You have giant shrews, fire beetles, goblins, a group of bandits, all hanging out in rooms that are essentially right next to each other connected by a long hall. It just seems really odd to explain how all these non-cooperating creatures got into those rooms. Do they all have "time allotments" for when they are allowed to go through the main hallway to go get supplies? Or go use the bathroom?

But here is the kicker, I still used B9 just as often as some of the other modules, even though I did not like the layouts, or "hooks" to adventures in B9. The reason is because they were short. And you know what? I don't think any player ever complained about there being fire beetles living in a room next to a bandit lair when we played. In fact, I sort of remember that having the long hallway of doors added a bit of drama to the adventure. The players were always fretting over which door to go to, much like playing the door game on "Let's make a deal".

So that I am getting near the end of the Basic series of reviews, I think the idea that adventure locations are somewhat "small" is a good design decision. Much like how adventurers can make a jaunt into one of the caves in B2, then hightail it back to keep, I think Castle Caldwell can serve the same function by allowing the players to get back to the main hallway and head out to recoup.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Game Mechanics Metamorphosis Alpha

So following my post about how I am not a big fan of the OGL (even though I do think it is a step in the right direction). I got to thinking about how I (or we) could do something about it.

Basically, what the Industry could use is a license that supersedes the OGL and spells out in very exact terms how the law works. What I mean by that is, the license is really not necessary in the eyes of the law, but the license would spell out in no uncertain terms that it would be perfectly acceptable to follow the law and no "big bad company" is going to come down and sue you.

Well, WotC wrote the OGL, and now they seem to be going down a very different path (but time will tell, who knows? Maybe they will announce an uber awesome license for 3rd party publishers later in the year).

Still, I got to wondering how could anyone get the one up on the OGL? And that got me to wondering about Metamorphosis Alpha. If you haven't heard, James Ward owns the rights to Metamorphosis Alpha. He still sells the original rules online. You should really head on over to and buy a copy of the pdf.

If there is any game that proves how ludicrous the OGL is, it is Metamorphosis Alpha. Here is a game that has Strength, Constitution ability scores that you roll with 3d6. Uses Armor Class, Hit Dice, Daggers, Swords, Crossbows.

And came out in 1976.

And here is what Gary Gygax penned in the foward to the rules.
Readers familiar with TSR's DUNGEONS & DRAGONS will immediately recognize many similarities between the two game systems, and they will just as quickly note the numerous important differences which make METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA a similar but outstandingly different sort of contest.

What I would propose, if I had any sort of clout with anyone (sigh), is James Ward should start a kickstarter so that James Ward could make $100,000 bucks for releasing the rules (the game mechanics) as Creative Commons (or something at least better than the OGL), and every OGL publisher should promote it because it would be better for the industry as a whole.

And finally, someone who actually makes creative content, someone like James Ward who worked for decades producing games would get a financial reward instead of some giant corporation that peddles brand awareness.